Every now and then you will hear the name of a player coming through the lower grades and rep teams and you’ll be told ‘this kid will be a star one day’.
For Newcastle Knights fans, they were hearing the name Sione Mata’utia when he was only 14 or 15 years of age.
With his three older brothers already going through the Knights’ system, Sione was earmarked as the best of the brothers as he went through the progression of rep sides to the National Youth Competition and then eventually to making his NRL debut in Round 20 of season 2014 against the Roosters.
Once he made his debut Sione hit the ground running playing the rest of the season in the NRL scoring seven tries from his seven matches he drew praise from then coach Wayne Bennett who said Sione would be a great leader for not just Newcastle but for Australia for a very long time.
Sione wouldn’t have to wait long to represent Australia as he was selected in the end of season 4 Nations squad as he became the youngest player to ever represent Australia at the age of 18 years and 129 days.
After achieving so much so quickly most fans expected Sione would just continue on his way to the top of the tree, but in the three years that have passed, Sione’s career has somewhat plateaued and failed to reach the heights most fans thought he would have by now.
Playing in a side that has come dead last in those three seasons hasn’t helped, plus learning a new position after being moved to the back row and then moved back to the centres again, along with his concussion issues can be attributed to why Sione has struggled to become the player the fans expected him to.
Sione is the most polarising player amongst Knights fans’ discussions with a large portion believing the club shouldn’t re-sign him with his contract in it’s final year.
As mentioned, Sione has struggled with his move back to the centres this year especially in defence but one must remember that he spent the last 18 months evolving into a very good edge back rower only to be moved again.
The 21-year old spent last season playing on the left edge and looking at the season Lachlan Fitzgibbon is having there, running off Kayln Ponga, who knows how well Sione would be playing if he were still playing there?
In my opinion Sione’s future is still in the forwards despite playing his entire junior career in the back line.
It’s clear to see the attributes that make him a good player are those that suit him playing in the forwards, whilst his weaknesses are exposed by him playing out wide.
Sione’s strengths are based around his power and mobility and although these strengths served him well playing in the centres as a junior he hasn’t been able to replicate those strengths as a centre in NRL due to the heavily structured play.
Although junior sides have structure it’s nothing compared to the NRL so for many players who excel in junior football due to their power and mobility like Sione they struggle to find the same success in a structured game plan.
In my opinion the key to un-locking Sione’s success is to give him as much freedom as possible on the field so he can get his hands on the ball more often without having to worry about fitting into the structured play.
With the way the game is evolving, I can see Sione having success as a roaming lock forward and although the lock has virtually become another front rower in today’s’ game, with many experts- including Matthew Johns- believing that the lock position will evolve once again into a more roaming and mobile role as it once was.
Phil Gould said recently on his podcast if he were coaching he’d still play his lock in that fashion.
With the NRL wanting to speed the game up more and the impending reduction of interchanges, rotating three big men through the middle won’t work, so as coaches try and reduce their interchanges and have more mobile defenders on the field a smaller mobile lock makes sense.
This change in the game will suit Sione and he will enjoy the on field freedom of being able to roam the field and simply ‘get the ball and run’.
The way Newcastle like to attack now with Mitchell Pearce and Ponga taking the ball to the line with multiple runners will also benefit from having a more mobile No.13 who can help ‘double up’ on both sides of the field.
With the addition of Sharks’ centre Jesse Ramien and the return of the injured Tautau Moga, Knights coach Nathan Brown will likely move Sione back into the forwards next season, but with Aiden Guerra and Fitzgibbon excelling in the back row, Sione may find himself in the lock position as Brown has made it clear Mata’utia is part of the club’s future.
For the fans who are critical of Sione they must also remember he is still only 21 years of age so he is still growing and learning as a player and for a player with so much talent coming through the ranks it would be foolish to let him go now.