Matt Ikuvalu - NRL - PlayersVoice
Matt Ikuvalu - NRL - PlayersVoice

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A mile in dad’s shoes

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A mile in dad’s shoes

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My dad, Mateaki Ikuvalu, arrived from Tonga to work hard and make a living. He went straight to work in a Sydney metal fabrication factory and has been there for more than 30 years.

 

He lived in Sydney before moving our family to the Central Coast; Kariong, then Narara. Dad commutes back to that factory, more than an hour each way to Belrose, every work day.

 

Dad, who everyone calls ‘Matty’, always puts our family first. He’s gone from night shifts into day shifts to get extra money. We have a nice family home, which he’s very proud of. He takes photos of it and sends them back to his family in Tonga, to show them how well he’s doing.

 

I’m really proud of my dad.

 

Dad never wanted me to join him in that factory. He’s always said to me, ‘You’ve got to do something better than this. I want something better for you’.

 

But I did join him there. For nearly four years. Meanwhile, guys I played junior footy with like Jake Trbojevic and Clint Gutherson were (deservedly) becoming big names in the NRL.

 

The factory was very repetitive work, with a lot of heavy lifting. Early-morning starts.

 

I was working on a paint line. I’d pick up a piece of metal and hang it on a line, it would go around and get painted, and then I’d take it off and pack it. There wasn’t a great deal to it. No thinking required.

 

Walking down the same steps every day annoyed me after a while. Walking down into the same changerooms, seeing the same blokes; good, hard-working men though they were.

 

I saw first-hand how much dad had done to provide for our family. I lived it and felt it. I knew why he didn’t want this life for me. I needed a change.

 

Papa Ikz running the forklift

A post shared by Matt Ikuvalu 🇹🇴🇦🇺 (@mattxikuvalu) on

 

I wanted my escape to be football but after being cursed by injuries through under-20s at Manly, I spent a few years contemplating giving up and not playing anymore.

 

My focus moved on to uni. Primary school teaching. I left the factory to start uni in 2016.

 

Uni meant trying for a better future, just as dad wanted for me. It meant escaping the factory, stuck in a vicious cycle where I’d do the exact same thing every day of my life.

 

It’s funny: after a year at uni, I stopped worrying about footy so much.

 

In 2016, everything was still, ‘I want to make it to the NRL’, and the thought of never making it still hurt. By 2017, I was content if it never happened. I would be a school teacher and I would be happy.

 

I almost didn’t play in 2017. My girlfriend, Alyce Ralph, told me I might as well keep going if I still enjoyed it and could make a bit of extra money.

 

That was the year that changed everything.

 

 

 

A LONG ROAD

With no NRL team on the Central Coast, I thought the guys who played Jim Beam Cup for my club, Erina Eagles, were superstars when I was a kid.

 

That was the third tier of NSW footy. Jamie Goddard, the former Queensland hooker, played for the Eagles, plus local footy cult heroes like Grant ‘Squasher’ Wooden. He’s still running around somewhere.

 

It’s a strong local competition on the Coast and I did Harold Matts with the old Central Coast Storm before moving to Manly for SG Ball, under-20s and NSW Cup. Footy started getting a bit more serious for me at Manly.

 

Clint and Jake were the big names. I remember when I first met Jake, you didn’t think there was much of him and then he’d fold the biggest bloke on the field.

 

You knew those fellas would play 300 NRL games, from the way they acted at training and how they played. On top of that, they’re some of the nicest blokes I’ve ever met and I’m happy that I’m still mates with them.

 

But right when I knew that I wanted to make a career in footy, too, I was doing hamstrings every six weeks. It was ridiculous. Then I got a syndesmosis injury in NSW Cup, a nasty one that needed screws in my ankle. I ended up not being able to walk for a few months. After that, it was like, ‘Well, I won’t have a club now, I’ll have to go find another one’. It wasn’t good for me.

 

I tried to do some training, but all I could do was gym work, no cardio. I started putting on weight and couldn’t really lose it until I could start running again. To stop from getting too bored, I started trying to play the keyboard. I learnt a few songs! But as soon as I could start running, I was out the door and forgot about the keyboard.

 

Dad never wanted me to join him in that factory. He’s always said to me, ‘You’ve got to do something better than this. I want something better for you’.

 

That was when I joined Wyong Roos, who have always been a big Central Coast club and were then playing in the NSW Cup. As the second tier below NRL, it’s the highest level that a Central Coast club has ever contested in NSW rugby league.

 

But it felt a long way away from my dream.

 

The Sydney Roosters entered a feeder club deal with Wyong in 2015, my first year there. Nothing happened for me that season. Or the season after. But 2017 was different.

 

With uni, I was finally focused on succeeding at something outside of rugby league, rather than the NRL being my sole aim.

 

I was Centre of the Year in the NSW Cup last season – which I put down to not thinking about footy too much. I’d go to uni and not think about footy at all, get to the weekend and be relaxed. Apparently, it worked!

 

I was called up by the Roosters on a Christmas contract after that season. Even then, I felt more at ease about the whole thing. I never thought I was going to get an NRL debut; I thought I was just coming in to fill the numbers.

 

After the last session, Trent Robinson called me in and said, ‘I’ll get you to go back to Wyong – just make sure you use all the things that you’ve learnt here’.

 

I did that. And I got called-up to train fulltime with the NRL squad just three rounds into the Cup season, after Daniel Tupou got injured. You don’t like getting opportunities like that, but I was rapt to get it nonetheless.

 

Then, one Monday, Robbo came and spoke to me after a video session.

 

Dream come true 🙌🏽 #1177 🐓

A post shared by Matt Ikuvalu 🇹🇴🇦🇺 (@mattxikuvalu) on

 

 

MY NRL DEBUT

I’d worked a shift at the opening of a shoe store, Platypus at Erina Fair, the week before I got my debut for the Roosters at age 24.

 

Robbo came up to me on the Monday after that, the week of Round 13.

 

He said to me, ‘Are you ready?’

 

I said, ‘Yeah’.

 

Robbo said, ‘Yeah, I know you’re ready’.

 

I was pretty humbled by that.

 

Robbo is a great bloke. He’s very approachable. I remember I was a bit scared and nervous when I first met him, but he’s the kind of bloke who makes an effort to say hi and have a chat to all his players, ask them how they are. He’ll always be the guy who made me an NRL player.

 

I was Centre of the Year in the NSW Cup last season – which I put down to not thinking about footy too much.

 

Zane Tetevano has mentored me through the process also, taught me to be calm with everything. Zane lives on the Central Coast too – I commute with him from Gosford station. Sometimes we have Frank-Paul Nu’uausala join us on the way home – he’s way up near Newcastle!

 

They put us up in a hotel room in Sydney the night before my debut and Zane just kept my head level, kept me in the moment, away from my phone with all the messages from people. Zane has been good with stuff like that.

 

It was surreal, running out for my debut. All my family and friends were there at Allianz Stadium, all wearing ‘Ikuvalu’ beanies. Dad and my mum, Jenny, who both sacrificed so much for me to get there. I had my mates from Sydney there, all my boys from Manly, guys that I grew up with at Narara. It made me really happy that they could be there. The crowd gave me some nerves but after that first run – a good, solid run – they all vanished.

 

I was comfortable out there – although 15 minutes in, I hurt my ankle. I aggravated a pre-existing thing, so that wasn’t too good; I played almost the whole game with a bung ankle. I just made sure the Tigers didn’t know I was hurt. There was no way I was going off the field on my debut.

 

I was so happy when I scored my first try, three games later against the Melbourne Storm – but I was trying to hold it in! I was trying to be humble, just smile a bit, just in case it wasn’t awarded. It went to the video ref and I was thinking, ‘If I don’t score this, I don’t want to have looked too happy’.

 

I held back everything, but inside I was about to explode. When you score, you don’t know whether to celebrate or not now, with the video reviews after most tries.

 

But I scored it. An NRL try. They can never take that away from me.

 

 

 

BRIGHT FUTURES

It’s been great watching Latrell Mitchell’s rapid rise this season.

 

Through the pre-season, I had to defend against him. It’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve had to do in footy. You have to be ready for his fend to the chest, or his bump. I think that experience pushed me to be a better player.

 

I also played with him at Wyong, when he got dropped back for a few games just last season.

 

He went to right centre, so I moved to the wing. He played well, but the next week in New Zealand, I went to right centre and he switched to left. I think he shines when he plays left centre. That week, he did exactly what we’ve now seen on the left edge at NRL and Origin level. He defends, bumps, breaks tackles, scores tries.

 

He’s produced the best form of his career this season and he’s handled himself well. He’s still humble, still just wants to play; the Origin success hasn’t gotten to him. He’s a lot fitter than he was last year, he’s just doing his thing and he’s starring.

 

I played almost the whole game with a bung ankle. I just made sure the Tigers didn’t know I was hurt. There was no way I was going off the field on my debut.

 

I’m still hopeful that there will be more NRL opportunities for me at the Roosters, even though the squad looks set. If there’s an injury or whatever, I know that I can play there now that I’m part of the team. I’ve played three NRL games; I’d definitely like more.

 

But whatever happens, I’m always looking at the bigger picture now, not just worrying about footy.

 

I’d really like to become a primary school teacher and influence students into doing better things with their lives. I never got an ATAR, so I’d like to encourage kids to work hard and finish high school, study at uni and make something of themselves.

 

I see some of the kids who I’ve taught during uni pracs and they’re all excited when they see me. They say, ‘There’s that Roosters player who taught me!’. It’s rewarding to see kids looking up to me.

 

Apart from the importance of kids having male role models, the job is also crying out for more male teachers as it’s become a female-dominated profession. Hopefully there’s a job for me after uni, so I can put into use what I’ve learned and help make a difference.

 

The Central Coast is a beautiful place to grow up, but it can also be a place where it’s easy to end up not doing very much with your life, if you don’t make the right choices. There just aren’t the study and job opportunities you get in Sydney.

 

If I can play a part in guiding kids away from negative choices and bettering themselves, I’ll be proud of the path I’ve chosen. I reckon mum and dad will be, too.

 

 

 

       

 

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