Saturday, June 22

Will Manu Vatuvei and the NRL be defined by success on the field, or failures off it? 

With his impending release from prison nearing, I’ve witnessed a lot of support for Manu Vatuvei across Warriors fan pages in recent weeks.

Many claim to have met or known him, and report how nice he was. To be fair though, it was always in his best interests to be nice to fans and sponsors. And it is easier to be nice when things are going your way. The true measure of character is how you react when they aren’t. Manu chose to import and sell meth in order to maintain a lifestyle he’d become accustomed to. Physically, Vatuvei was provided a range of gifts he could apply on the paddock. But intelligence is probably something he’ll never be remembered for. In fact, perhaps the opposite, given that his arrest was described by police and customs as a very ‘unsophisticated operation’.

Methamphetamine is an absolute soul killer and has had a destructive impact on thousands of families within New Zealand communities. Manu showed his true character not in his success, but in his mistakes, because he chose to contribute towards destroying lives at the expense of inflating his own. The reason I say this is because he’d still be doing this if he hadn’t been caught. In fact, after he had been charged, he was still proclaiming his innocence because his ego feared the damage his reputation was about to suffer. Based on that, I’m not convinced he’s changed.
However, he has an opportunity to prove otherwise. But the odds are stacked against him. Two-thirds of released offenders are back inside within two years, and given his profile, finding a satisfying job could prove challenging.

However, you can’t help admiring the good intentions of the Warriors club in this matter. They are embracing someone who has contributed a lot to the club and trying to support him on his journey to redemption. It’s important to clarify that Vatuvei will not be employed by the Warriors, that he will have no interaction with players, coaches, or staff, and that his association with their well-being department (led by Jerry Seuseu), was not used to help support his release.

He is only participating voluntarily in their outreach programmes where he will share his story in the hope it may deter others from making similar mistakes. And to be fair, Vatuvei’s situation is unique within the context of the Warriors, given his high profile and contrasted by his crime and remarkable public fall from grace. Yet while he might be a strong example to warn against those bad decisions, is he the best person to offer direction on how to make good decisions? Perhaps Vatuvei should prove he can live on the outside without making more mistakes before sharing with anyone the lessons he may have learned.

Because who is listening anyway?

Between 2015 and 2022, and NRL player was implicated in a major off-field scandal around every 23 days. Despite efforts to educate players on the risks they face, every time an NRL player gets caught, they apologise and we hear the same old media spin of how they will use this as a teachable moment and hopefully other young guys can learn from their story. It’s bullshit. There’s hundreds of these stories and they aren’t learning.

What will it take to change the culture of rugby league and drag its reputation from the gutter? Rugby league and the NRL can’t seem to cut a break when it comes to bad press. If it’s not poor referee officiating, it’s players or former players getting themselves into trouble off the field. And now it appears even league journalists can’t seem to keep themselves out of the headlines. As a parent, why on God’s green earth would you think it was a good idea for your child to become a rugby league player? If long term health issues around concussions aren’t enough of a deterrent, the ongoing headlines that feature NRL stars involved in off-field transgressions would surely leave parents questioning whether the culture of the sport is an environment they want their child entering. After all, we are the product of our environment and who we surround ourselves with.

A taste of what we’ve seen over the past 12 months includes Jared Hayne’s rape trials, former Manly stalwart Brett Stewart buying cocaine, Brett Finch being arrested for possessing child porn images, Jack Wighton and Latrell Mitchell having dust ups outside nightclubs, Talatau Junior Amone allegedly attacking people with a hammer, Manly players unsupportive of Pride week and most recently journalist Paul Kent being charged with common assault for choking a woman without consent. How is this sport surviving? Do we simply enjoy the theatre of it all?

I love rugby league. It’s a brilliant sport. But the character and culture of the game needs work.

It’s clearly an environment and culture that breeds unsavoury, neanderthal attitudes and behaviour and will continue to be categorised as a working-class, poor cousin of rugby union until the game and supporters encourage change. The list of despicable acts committed by league players over the last decade is shocking and simply way too long to even attempt to list. It’s certainly not a list you would expect to see from Super Rugby players. But do all these transgressions define the sport? For many, they do. But there’s a lot to love and appreciate as well. The positive stories are aplenty and the desire to see your club succeed is consistently present. Perhaps the same is with Manu Vatuvei. Many will define him by his success, while others will remember him for his mistakes.

Our past doesn’t have define who we are, or who we become. But it can be a good indicator. I hope for Vatuvei’s sake, he’s able to turn things around. I would love to see one of those “where are they now” articles and discover he’s found some peace and happiness in whatever he chooses to do. Vatuvei wanted to be like his childhood hero, Jonah Lomu. On the field, he got about half-way to achieving that. Off the field, there’s a lot further to go. If we really are the product of our environment, then Vatuvei is just another of the many faulty products the NRL has produced. Fingers crossed he finds a better environment to surround himself with and produces something better.

Unfortunately, I’m sure we’ll hear about another off-field transgression from someone within the NRL, over the next 23 days.