News came in this morning that Manu Vatuvei has signed an extension through to 2013 on his contract with the Warriors, believed to be worth over $500,000 a year. As a long-suffering (is there any other kind?) Warriors fan that made me extremely happy. On The Crowd Goes Wild last night Mulligan and Richardson were discussing whether Manu was the best player in the game. They were incredulous about the thought even existing, and it does seem silly to say it out loud. But I think it might also be quite valid.
Why? This season he’s tied for fourth-highest try scorer in the NRL with 17, and among those with more than 15 only Israel Folau has scored at a greater rate per game. While the Sydney media gets wound up about ‘The Thriller’ Uate and ‘T. Rex’ Williams, because they watch them every week, Vatuvei has quietly become perhaps the most devastating finisher in the game.
I thought it was interesting the way commentators heaped praise upon McCaw for his disputed try against the Springboks over the weekend, because to me he was within a hair’s breadth of butchering what should have been an easy try. Give Manu the ball in the same situation and he’s down with a metre to spare. Getting him to move laterally when the line beckons is a task no one in the NRL appears up to.
But it’s his aerial game which has shown the most improvement. Where once he was targeted and derided for his incompetence under the high ball he is now near unstoppable. I thought it instructive that a large part of Manly’s winning strategy over the weekend involved playing Jamie Lyon as effectively a blocker – he just boxed out Vatuvei so that Williams could avoid competing with him for the ball.
The tactic worked – our winger came home empty-handed, while Williams dotted down twice. But its legality was questionable I felt – if players leaping aimlessly without going for the ball can be penalised, surely employing identical tactics on the ground should be similarly discouraged. I know that Newscorp would certainly be less than pleased by the fact that what promised to be the game’s greatest contest – Vatuvei vs Williams under the high ball – was largely a non-event.
For Manu though it was one subdued game. When he has been fit this year, or even at 75% or better, the man has been fantastic. His early defensive imperfections, like a tendency (common to many young players of a certain size) to come out of the line and try and put on a glory hit, have largely been ironed out. He’s getting close to being a complete rugby league player, one who would walk into an all-NRL team.
And certainly worthy of being part of the discussion when the ‘best player in the game’ conjecture takes place, alongside Thurston, Hayne, Inglis et al. He’s just that good. And now he’ll be a Warrior until he’s done a decade in the side – a feat only Stacey Jones has managed before. With this contract in place he has the opportunity to become as talismanic a presence for this era’s side as the Little General was for the one just passed.