Above: Mateaki Kafatolu had a great game against Canterbury recently, helping them win 60-14. Photo by David Brownlie
“I tried to treat Tasman as just another game, but I was bloody nervous. Brad Shields got injured in the eighth minute and I had to be called four times from the bench before I noticed what was going on, Mateaki Kafatolu recalls of his introduction to the Wellington Lions.
“Izzy Walker pulled me off my backside and on to the field which has earnt me a bit of stick since,” Kafatolu continues.
The veteran flanker at last debuted for his province on September 10 after more than a hundred games for Petone.
In 2009, Kafatolu was the recipient of the Billy Wallace Trophy Best and Fairest award as the most valuable player in Wellington club rugby. He was in the Lions wider training group, but failed to make the final cut.
“I thought my time had passed, but I was content with that. My job was stable and I have two kids to raise. This has been a surprise bonus,” Kafatolu admits.
Kafatolu was employed in Eftpos maintenance and also works for an asphalt business run by Petone stalwart Tom McCormick.
“I am grateful for the support of my employers. They have allowed me to chase my rugby dreams. My partner Te Amo has also been very staunch and understanding,” Kafatolu acclaims.
Te Amo herself is a fine athlete having played for the Central Pulse netball franchise. Their two daughters are aged six and two.
“My girls take up my time outside of rugby. They can be a handful, but I love them,” Kafatolu gushes.
Kafatolu has been well received everywhere he has played. In addition to his long career with the Villagers he has played five seasons in Japan, Romania and Sri Lanka.
“I spent three years with the Barbarians club in Japan. The Japanese play a fast style which is less physical than other places. In Romania I was built like a kindergarten kid. That is just bone on bone footy. In Sri Lanka there were a lot of Wellington guys playing including Fa'atonu Fili and Peniasi Tokakece.”
Fili, Tokakece and Kafatolu are names synonymous with the local club game in the last decade. Does Kafatolu feel players of his ilk should have been more rewarded in the representative scene?
“I guess it would have been nice, but if you look at these young guys coming through now they are so fast, big and skilful. I just try and do my thing and remind them they don’t know everything,” Kafatolu responds.
The Chiefs’ Chase Tiatia famously learnt that lesson the hard way in his first season with Hutt Old Boys Marist . In the 2014 McBain Shield, won 20-19 by Petone, Tiatia was put in his place after sledging the Petone captain.
In the opening minutes Kafatolu hit Tiatia in a hard tackle and Tiatia quipped, ‘Is that all you've got?’ In the last minute Tiatia retrieved the ball inside his own 22 and tried to mount a desperate last counterattack. He was smashed by Kafatolu, losing the ball. Kafatolu retorted, ‘Is that all you've got.’
“Chase’s dad played for Petone. Every time we play Hutt Marist that comes up,” Kafatolu laughs.
Kafatolu is doing his best to ensure his name is remembered in the NPC. Replacing skipper Shields (due back in a fortnight) and Poneke’s Greg Foe (who broke his arm at the start of the season) he has played 231 minutes thus far making 31 tackles and 36 carries. He played the full 80 minutes in the record 60-14 thrashing of Canterbury and scored his first try on Saturday against Waikato.
“The Canterbury game was a real thrill. I had never played them before, but watched them trash everyone else. They have been the benchmark so to play like that was awesome,” Kafatolu marvels.
Kafatolu is one of six Tongans in the Lions group. His older brother Mounga played for Petone which is his original connection to the capital. Mateaki has trained with other clubs in off-seasons, but the thought of leaving the Village has never seriously crossed his mind.
“I can’t see myself anywhere else. We improved this year and if you look at the talent coming through I think we will again. The stalwarts like Peter Green and Wayne Smith have been very supportive even when we were down,” Kafatolu concludes.
His nickname is “Mutts” - but it wasn’t necessarily derived from his Christian name Mateaki. When he made his Premier debut back in 2008, he was instructed by his more established (and senior) forward pack teammates like Thomas Tupuivao, Eugene Smith, Chris Molenaar and James Saolele to be like an absolute terrier and a nuisance around the field; hence the nickname “Mutts”.
After the Lions season, he will lead Petone's sevens programme over the summer.