Sione Mata’utia happy to rub shoulders with stars

Sione Mata’utia. Picture: Jonathan CarrollEVEN if he does not get to play a game in Australia’s Four Nations campaign, Knights whiz kid Sione Mata’utia is primed for the time of his life.
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Mata’utia will live out a dream when he joins Greg Inglis, a fellow former Hunter Sports High student, and other childhood heroes in camp with the Kangaroos in Brisbane on Friday.

“I can’t imagine being around him and having a joke,” the 18-year-old rookie said.

“It’s gonna be awesome, being with players I see week to week and on TV. I can’t wait to brush shoulders with them and just talk to them about playing Four Nations, playing for the country, and how I can get a few tips off them and take this whole experience in.

“In the Prime Minister’s XIII team, I got to talk to Greg Bird and Robbie Farah, and the youngsters like Josh Mansour and Matt Moylan, so I got to learn a lot.”

After just seven NRL games for Newcastle, Mata’utia is one of 11 debutants in Australia’s 24-man squad for games against New Zealand, England and Samoa in the next four weeks.

Ten first-timers were named in the original squad on Tuesday, but Moylan made it 11 when he was called in on Wednesday to replace Jarryd Hayne, who has quit rugby league to pursue a gridiron career in the NFL.

If he plays, Mata’utia will displace Israel Folau as the youngest to represent Australia in a Test.

Australian coach Tim Sheens has made no guarantees but, since taking over from Ricky Stuart in 2009, has always used every player in his squad for at least one game in Four Nations tournaments.

The same applied in the World Cup last year.

Naturally, Mata’utia wants nothing more than to play at least one Test in the next month, but as the freshest face in a new-look squad he accepts his position in the pecking order.

“If I get picked in a team, I’m going to be truly honoured and humbled by it, and if not, I’ll be truly grateful for the opportunity I have been given,” he said.

“To even get in the Prime Minister’s XIII, I thought that’s as far as I’ll go, so to get this achievement, it’s awesome.

“If there are better players in the squad than me that make it in front of me, I’ll let whatever’s best for the team happen and I’ll be there cheering them on and supporting.”

Sheens will pick his best 17 for games against New Zealand at Suncorp Stadium on October 25 and England at AAMI Park on November 2, so the game against Samoa at WIN Stadium on November 9 looms as the most likely opportunity for Mata’utia.

Should Australia win their first two games, they will have already qualified for the November 15 final in Wellington, giving Sheens a chance to blood any unused rookies.

“I know who my family is going to be supporting,” Mata’utia said of the prospect of playing against older brother Peter in that game.

“If I do get to play Samoa, it’s going to be a real good experience for me. I’m sure that the players will know I’m Samoan background, but I was born in Australia so I am Australian.

“I had the option to go to Samoa or Australia, but I pledged to Australia first, because being an Australian myself, I would like to represent my country and it’s always been a dream.

“I was going to represent Samoa for my mum because she wanted me to support her family and her heritage . . . but I pledged to Australia and now this opportunity has come.”

Sheens said on Wednesday that Mata’utia was capable of playing anywhere in the backline and, in the absence of so many veterans, deserved a chance.

“He’ll be in the back end of the group, along with young Dylan Walker and Alex Johnston, as back-ups to the senior guys, but his versatility, his strength and his talent is there for all to see,” Sheens said.

“He can play fullback, wing and centre, and I went looking for that type of player. Dylan Walker’s that sort of player as well, and Johnston has played wing and fullback, so we needed to cover all those positions and it was a good chance to give these young guys an opportunity.

“Better judges than I have seen it coming, too, with these kids. In fact, I’ve not had anyone say to me, ‘What the hell is he doing in the squad?’ So that’s a good sign.

“Whether it’s in club land, when you see the young guys coming through, or at international level, they’ll inject that enthusiasm into the squad and keep the old guys in the squad honest.”

Sheens was not the only influential figure Mata’utia impressed in the Prime Minister’s XIII game against Papua New Guinea at Kokopo last Sunday. Bird, who captained the side, was voted players’ player after the win, but he voted for Mata’utia.