Watene-Zelezniak siblings driving each other to succeed
By Adrian Proszenko
12 May 2018 — 6:00pm
It’s about a 10-minute car ride from Malakai Watene-Zelezniak’s house to Penrith Stadium. Sharing the trip with him, before and after they play each other on Thursday night, will be younger brother Dallin. The siblings are close, figuratively and geographically, but the ride home in Dallin’s Volvo will seem an eternity for the loser. “He is around the corner from me, so I’ll get him to swing by and pick me up and we’ll go to the game together,” Malakai said. “I’ll be silent on the way home. I won’t want to speak to him if he gets another two tries and a win [against me].”
All the focus in the lead up to Thursday night football will inevitably centre around the Cleary family. Penrith halfback Nathan Cleary will make his long-awaited comeback from injury, just in time for Origin consideration, against the Wests Tigers outfit coached by his father, Ivan. However, it isn’t the only family affair. The Watene-Zelezniaks played together, and against each other, for the first time last year. In the head-to-head battle, Dallin is one up. The stakes this time around couldn’t be higher. “If I win, he is going to do my dishes for a week,” Malakai said with a chuckle. “We went up against each other on the same wings [last year]. He is playing fullback on Thursday so it’ll be a bit more of a relief not going up against him. But if he runs at me, I’m going to try and put a shot on him. “Obviously playing together [is better]. I debuted with Dal playing as my centre [at Penrith]. I debuted on the left wing and he played left centre. It’s good being on the same field as him, but better on the same side.” Dallin added: “It’s beautiful sharing the field with him. It would be better if we were on the same team. I am one up on him. We beat them here [at Penrith].” As for being the support act to the Clearys, Dallin said: "There’s nothing like going up against your father. Me and Mal don’t live together, we live with our wives, but Nath shares the same house as him [Ivan]. "That would be very awkward. I’d be like, ‘hey dad, do you mind telling me what your game plan is this week?’’’
Malakai, at 26, is four years older than Dallin. It might not seem a lot now, but the age gap was a chasm when playing backyard football in their youth. “I was a bit of the older brother bully,” Malakai said. “It was always me against Dal and our younger brother, Jayden. I was the bigger one and it was me verse them. I was a bit of a bully growing up.” However, it was Dallin who first broke through in the NRL. “DWZ” made his first-grade debut while still in his teens and immediately became a star, earning a Kiwis Test jersey soon afterwards. The journey to the top has been much longer for Malaki, who flirted with rugby union and had to juggle jobs – including work as a prison guard – while toiling away in reserve grade.
His persistence paid off when he was picked to make his debut on the wing for the Panthers last year, with Dallin as his centre partner. Malakai then made a mid-season switch to the Tigers, resulting in a head-to-head battle later that season. Round two now awaits. “He lives 30 seconds up the road from me,” Malakai said. “If we don’t see each other every day, it’s every second day. We are a close family. Our kids are always playing together. We’re close brothers. “We are both pretty relaxed. We have a great love for each other. It’s not really an intense feeling. We’re just excited being on the same field as each other.”
Malaki couldn’t have timed his NRL return any better. He made his comeback from a hip injury on Thursday night at the expense of Kevin Naiqama and a strong performance in the win over the Cowboys ensured he got another crack at Dallin. “He is totally opposite to how he is on the field,” Malakai said. “Because he is so placid he keeps everything in, but once he crosses the line, it’s his release. He is fiery. When we went up against each other there was pretty much silence; no talking. “He got two tries and the win. I’m coming out firing next week so I can get one back.”