FOR THE LOVE OF THE CLUB: KNIGHTS LEGEND TAMATEA TO JOIN 300 CLUB
Riccarton stalwart Shane Tamatea is already established as a modern legend of the game in our region, but on Saturday he is set to become further entrenched in Canterbury Rugby League folklore.
The indefatigable forward will make his 300th premier grade appearance for the Knights when he runs out in front of the Crosbie Park faithful for a crunch encounter with Eastern Eagles.
“It’s hard to put into words – the fact I’m still playing is maybe a miracle in itself,” says Tamatea, who made his debut as a teenager back in the 2000 season.
“When I first started I never expected I’d be playing 300 games later, but it means everything. It’s one of those things you don’t really think about, but now that I’m here I just look back and think time’s flown.”
To put the two-time CRL premiership winner’s ironman efforts in perspective, just 16 players in the 113-season history of the NRL have made 300 top-grade appearances for one club (Sydney Roosters’ Mitch Aubusson is scheduled to join that group this weekend). Meanwhile, Tamatea is in the midst of his 21st consecutive season of Massetti Cup football; Melbourne’s Cameron Smith and Paul Gallen are the co-holders of the Australian premiership record, having played in 19 straight seasons.
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 and played in Canterbury’s Centenary match against Wellington in 2012. But the high standards Tamatea maintains are perhaps best exemplified by winning the 2018 CRL Sportsman of the Year award at the age of 37.
END IN SIGHT FOR INDESTRUCTIBLE KNIGHT
Tamatea stepped back into a player-coach role with Riccarton’s Canterbury Cup side in 2017, but he still managed six premier games that year and returned to the top level the following season. Remarkably, the veteran has missed just one game since the start of 2018.
So how does he sustain the drive and fitness to back up year after year?
“It’s pretty easy, to be honest, just because I love the game, I love my club and my teammates,” Tamatea explains.
“The teammates are the ones that keep me going every year, seeing all the fullas coming through. I’ve probably played with 500 different players over the years!
“I’ve been lucky in terms of injuries. But I’ve tried to look after my body as best I can.”
Although any retirement declarations will probably be met with scepticism until he’s spotted on the sidelines with his well-worn boots nowhere in sight, Tamatea gave the clearest indication yet that 2020 could be his last campaign as an on-field leader for the Knights.
“To be honest, I had my doubts this pre-season. I was grinding away through pre-season and struggling a bit, I’d put on a wee bit of beef and was struggling to carry it around. But I got past that and managed to talk myself into having another year.
“All things being equal it probably will be me at the end of this year – I’ll probably step back into a trainer or assistant coach role with the team.”
EMOTIONAL ROAD TO 300
Tamatea is quick to emphasise his milestone is something for the Knights as a whole – and everyone who has helped him along the way – to celebrate, rather than being merely an individual accomplishment.
“Obviously Riccarton hasn’t been a premier club for as long as a lot of the other clubs,” he says.
“As long as I’ve been playing, that’s how long we’ve had a premier team. So I suppose to be able to play 300 games on behalf of Riccarton, it’s a big achievement.”
But the latter stages of Tamatea’s journey to 300 games has been tinged with sadness.
In 2019 the club lost two of its most dedicated and passionate servants, who doubled as two of the pillars in Tamatea’s life: his mother, Derryn Vailuu, and long-serving Knights president Jim Barclay.
“(Jimmy) had a big influence on my career as a kid growing up at Riccarton coming through the juniors, he passed away last year with cancer. He would have been the first one to shake my hand and be proud and congratulate me (on 300 games).
“One of the last times I got the chance to speak to him, he couldn’t speak back to me but I know he was listening. I told him that I’d do everything to keep our club alive and keep it successful so it would be there for future generations. That’s a big motivating factor for me, to carry it on for someone like Jimmy who pretty much gave his whole life to Riccarton.
“My old lady also passed away last year; that was a big motivating factor to carry on and win that grand final for her as well as Jimmy.
“She was our number one supporter, never missed a game. Both of those people have been a big inspiration, not only for me but everyone in our club.”
The contribution Vailuu and Barclay made to the Knights has certainly rubbed off on Tamatea. His tireless efforts off the field as well as on it – including helping spearhead the successful Crosbie Nines tournament – form part of the backbone of the club.
“The club means everything to me, I don’t know how to put it into words,” Tamatea says.
“But just like a lot of people at other clubs, you’ve always got those people that are willing to go above and beyond to keep their club going and surviving, so all the young kids have a club to be at when they’re older. I just love my club. It’s something I’m passionate about, not just my club but rugby league in general. I love the game and want to see it survive in Canterbury.
“Anything that can help grow the game from the grassroots level – we can only do so much with volunteers and not a lot of money. But if we can showcase our game like we do with the Crosbie Nines and the Pacific Series, it’s an avenue of attracting players and getting people to the game.”
ONE LAST GRAB FOR GLORY
Tamatea’s 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 39-year-old, who admits he didn’t appreciate that early success as much as he should have.
“It’s pretty hard to go past those grand finals. It’s the pinnacle. It’s what everyone plays for, finals footy. I can look back now and say I’ve been there and done that, but I still wish I could have done more as well since then.
“I was quite fortunate in my third year to make a grand final and win one – not many people get to do that, and I look back now and I took it for granted.”
From the early heights of premiership success, Tamatea has had some near misses at the business end of the season as well as enduring the lows of wooden spoon campaigns. But Riccarton has rallied over the past couple of years and with the Knights sailing along in outright third on the Massetti Cup ladder four rounds out from the playoffs, he is quietly confident of making an impression in 2020.
“I’d love nothing more than for us to get into another grand final. My brother (Kolio Vailuu) plays in the team and being able to play in a grand final with him has always been a dream of mine, but we haven’t quite been able to get there. We’ve come close.
“This year we’re travelling along OK, we’ve still got plenty to work on but we’ve got the team that can push hard for a finals spot.”
BAND OF WARRIORS
Typical of Tamatea’s humility, when the limelight is shining his way – and deservedly so – he chooses to deflect it onto others. The universally admired Knights great singled out a group of fellow veterans still grinding away at the Massetti Cup coalface many years after most players hang up the boots.
The likes of Teni Tuli, who Tamatea played with at Canterbury A level and against in a pair of grand finals. Tuli tragically died in 2015 during the week he would have made his 300th appearance for the Keas, adding another layer of poignancy to Tamatea’s milestone match.
And of course, there’s 40-year-old marvel Corey Lawrie – “he’s basically me at Hornby, dedicating everything to the Panthers” – still proving himself as one of the region’s elite players, as well as an invaluable contributor to his club off the field.
Tamatea also pinpointed Eastern Eagles’ Michael Ropiha, a former schoolboy teammate at Riccarton and an opponent this weekend; Celebration Lions’ Leka brothers, who featured alongside Tamatea in the 2004 grand final for the Knights; another soon-to-be 300-gamer in Sean Spooner, who moved from Hornby to Riccarton this season; Halswell Hornets mainstay Jaye Pukepuke; and Northern Bulldogs’ Kyle Reuben.
Ever the team man, Tamatea’s landmark achievement will be become secondary as soon as the whistle blows at 2:45pm on Saturday at Crosbie Park – it may be his 300th match, but the two competition points on offer are the real prize.
“It’s a crucial game for us, there’s only four games left and we need to win at least two of them to be in the race for the top four.”