Text from Matt Utai to Steve Folkes reaps dividends for winger at Wests Tigers
From: The Daily Telegraph
May 20, 2011 12:00AM
IT WAS the throwaway text message that resurrected the NRL career of Matt Utai.
Late last year, Utai was at home, wondering what he would do with his life.
He had just spent a season leading local A-Grade side Auburn Warriors to a premiership. An English Super League deal with Celtic Crusaders turned sour forcing him to spend winter in park footy.
Convinced he still had something to offer the NRL, he pulled out his mobile and flicked Steve Folkes a message.
Folkes and Utai had combined to win a premiership at the Bulldogs in 2004.
Folkes was now at the Wests Tigers, and Utai thought, “what the hell”.
“I just asked him if the Tigers needed a few players,” Utai says.
Folkes reckons it was more along the lines of, “are you blokes interested in a super- star winger?”.
The pair spoke on a Friday, a meeting was set up with Tim Sheens on the Monday and a few weeks later Utai was thrown a lifeline.
Now Utai, the nuggetty flyer who turns 30 next week, has proven to be one of the buys of the season.
His barnstorming runs in to bigger defenders have made him a crowd favourite.
He hasn’t missed a game and holds a mortgage on the right wing, even to the point he has kept Beau Ryan on the interchange.
“At the start of the year my goal was to make the full-time squad,” Utai tells League Central, as he sips on one of his countless jumbo skim mochas for the week.
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“By the time I got here there had been injuries to players and Sheensy had the confidence to play me in round one. I haven’t looked back since. I thought I’d spend most of year in reserve grade, but knew I could push for an [NRL] spot. It was a bonus Sheensy threw me in there.”
Utai left the Bulldogs at the end of 2009 before he signed a one-year deal with the Crusaders. He realised he would struggle with the English weather and did a U-turn.
He decided to join his mates at the Auburn club where he played every position, “except hooker and prop”.
“I’d get blokes niggling at me and calling me a ‘has-been’,” Utai reveals. “But I’d tell them ‘you’re a never-been’, so I’d have the last laugh.”
Training at Auburn was twice a week, and usually consisted of a few games of touch football. But Utai stayed in tip-top shape.
He also pulled in the crowds on a Sunday afternoon at Mona Park to the point the club they grew from an A-Grade outfit last year to nine teams this year.
Club boss Fedi Sleiman says: “Everyone knew Matty Utai played for this club, then all the kids wanted to play for the club Matty Utai played for. We’ve now got teams from the under-6s to under-13s.”
Folkes said Utai was at one stage one of the game’s best dummy-half runners.
“His stature and power makes him great out of dummy half, he’s pretty tidy, plays an uncomplicated game, but played for his country [New Zealand] many times and in a grand final win [for the Dogs],” Folkes says.
“He scored two tries in that grand final for us. One was rather easy, but the second try I don’t think many other wingers would have got the ball down [the way he did].”
Coach Sheens had no problems taking on Utai, despite a year in the NRL wilderness.
He also revealed the club was only in a position to sign Utai once Taniela Tuiaki failed to overcome his chronic ankle problems.
“He’s a blockbusting style of kid who fitted the mould we wanted,” Sheens says.
“With [Beau] Ryan out with his groin we were a bit short, we brought him in and he bounced straight into our system. He’s enthusiastic, strong and made more than 100m every game, and that’s just with his get-out sets, we’re not talking about what he does down the sideline.”
Despite Utai being one of the shortest wingers in the game at 168cm - and weighing in at 96kg - Sheens says few rivals had been able to outleap him.
“Everybody thinks they can kick to him and out-jump him, but nobody has actually scored one over the top of him this year,” he says.
Penrith will no doubt try to target Utai tomorrow night at Campbelltown Stadium.
Utai is not fussed. He wants to build on his partnership with centre Blake Ayshford.
Already a premiership winner, Utai is convinced the Tigers have the ingredients to secure him a second title. “Everyone dreams of winning a grand final,” he says. "I can see it happening here.
"We’re one of those teams that can do lot of damage to other teams, but we can also do a lot of damage to ourselves.
“At the end of the day all the boys are confident.”
This is what I wanted, to get back in the mix and enjoy the company of all the boys again."
When the Tigers signed him, I said to myself WTF! I thought he was a dud and more.
Well, he has made me eat my words with his performances this year and if we do any good toward the end of the season when Chris and Lote come back, we cant thank Utai for helping the team along.
My thoughts exactly. And I am happy to be shown up too! He has done so much better than I could have imagined. A great buy for us.