Milestone man Tamatea sets sights on another Knights title
Riccarton Knights legend Shane Tamatea brought up the rare 250-game milestone on Saturday, but typical of the selfless clubman, he was more concerned with the side’s crucial 28-22 win over Northern Bulldogs.
“It was good, the boys dug deep on Saturday and got the result,” Tamatea said, before revealing what the honour means to him.
“For me to be able to play 250 games for the Knights, it’s one of the proudest moments of my career, along with winning a couple of grand finals with the club.
“It was definitely right up there, it was a special day. The boys and the club put on a good day for me and it was great.”
To put Tamatea’s ironman achievement in perspective, just 37 players in the 109-season history of the NRL have made 250 top-grade appearances for one club. Debuting in 2000, Tamatea’s 17-season career span has been bettered by only five players in the Australian premiership.
His career was in its relative infancy when he starred in Riccarton’s watershed 54-14 grand final triumph over Linwood in 2002 – the club’s maiden premiership – and the Knights’ 33-14 defeat of the Keas in the ’04 decider.
But the desire for another title still burns fiercely in the 35-year-old, who admits he perhaps didn’t appreciate that early success as much as he should have.
“In 2002, being the first grand final win on their own in the 75-year history of the club, was pretty special,” he said.
“(But) I was pretty young back then, so when I look back now maybe I didn’t realise not everyone gets to play in a grand final.
“You’ve got to cherish those moments when you do get there – that’s what I try to pass onto the boys now, if you do ever get the chance to play in one of those you’ve got to cherish it.
“As you do when you get older, you probably mature a bit and get a bit wiser. You don’t worry about the little things in the game, just get on with the job. When I was younger I was a bit hot-headed, but as you get older you cut all that stuff out and just concentrate on the game.”
Given his experience and status at the club, it’s no surprise Tamatea is considered one of Riccarton’s foremost leaders – and part of his motivation is emulating the role a couple of senior players performed when he was coming through the Knights’ ranks.
“There’s one that stands out for sure, and that’s Aaron Whittaker. He was a big influence on myself as well as our team back then, that professional attitude that he had at the Warriors and the Kiwis, he brought that to the Knights environment,” Tamatea explained.
“All of us young guys back then fed off it. It has a lot to do with why I’m still playing now – what he did back then, he was probably the same age as I am now.
“Vince Whare was another one, I started playing premiers with Vince and the way he played the game – with mana and pride – I try to bring that to my game as well, and he was a huge influence on me.”
Tamatea’s consistency and durability at club level has been recognised by rep selectors in the past, debuting for the Canterbury Bulls side that narrowly went down to Mt Albert in the 2005 Bartercard Cup grand final.
He was a regular for the Bulls, South Island Scorpions and Canterbury A combinations for several years, while Tamatea pinpoints playing in Canterbury’s Centenary match against Wellington in 2012 as a particular highlight.
But while the early seasons of Tamatea’s tenure at Riccarton provided plenty of glowing highlights, the Knights have endured their share of tough times.
The club finished with the wooden spoon in 2013 after notching just two wins – but the character in the place was exemplified by the Knights’ climb back into the top four in 2014-15.
“In 2013, we lost eight or nine from our starting side from the previous year, so we had to rebuild,” he recalls.
“Even in saying that, eight or nine of our games that year we probably lost by six points or less. So we weren’t far away, and we managed to pick up another couple of guys the last two years.
“It’s definitely satisfying to come up from the bottom, dead last, to be a contender for the top four.”
The Knights find themselves amongst the Massetti Cup front-runners again after six rounds of the 2016 season, and Tamatea believes they are capable of returning to the grand final stage for the first time in 12 years.
“The squad we’ve got this year is basically the same squad we’ve had for the last three years, so we’ve really built some combinations, and we’ve had another coach come in, Sam Brown, who’s helping Chris Hansen.
“We’ve taken our game to another level. I don’t think we’ve hit our straps yet, but I think once we do other teams might want to watch out for us.”
Tamatea has also been a tireless servant of the club and the game off the field – including his role in spearheading the highly successful Crosbie Nines tournament, which started in 2015 and enjoyed an outstanding follow-up instalment in February this year.
The nine-a-side competition has featured teams from all over the South Island, as well as Maori, Tongan and Samoan teams.
“(The Crosbie Nines) started off as a bit of a pipe dream when we put it together the first year, and it blew up bigger than we expected. We had to (back it up) this year and I think we did that.
“Basically it’s just something to bring the rugby league community together as a whole, not just Canterbury but also outside of Canterbury, to get rugby league out there in a positive light.”
Tamatea opened up on what makes the Riccarton Knights a special club and what motivates him to keep pulling on the boots and the red-and-black jumper 16 years after his senior debut.
“What people probably don’t realise about Riccarton is we’re not so much in a rugby league area. Playing rugby league for Riccarton my whole life, we’ve always struggled to attract players from the big clubs. Most players tend to lean towards the bigger clubs,” he explained.
“We just pick up whatever players we can and play with heart week in, week out. We’ve got a mantra at the moment, calling ourselves ‘battlers’ – we just keep battling away. Do what we do and get the results, hopefully.
“I suppose it’s just heart and soul that keeps me at the Knights.
“And getting to play alongside my younger brother, Kolio (Vailuu), is a big thing for me as well. I want to win a premiership with him.
“He’s 24 and he’s due to bring up his 100 games for the Knights already by the end of this year. That’s pretty cool to be able to run out alongside him each week.”
But the stalwart remains coy on whether he’ll push on to the magical 300-game mark, again answering in his trademark club-first style.
“I don’t know about that one, we’ll just have to see. It’s just week in, week out (and) year in, year out for me.
“I did have a plan to drop down to reserve grade as player-coach in a couple of years’ time, but it all depends on what shape the club’s in. If the team is in good shape, I can step down and let the young fullas take over and go from there.”
WILL EVANS – CANTERBURY RUGBY LEAGUE
Photo Credit: Annette Turnbull-Dew