Early days: Main pic, Williams (front row, centre) and Matai (middle row, second from right) at Mount Albert Grammar. Photo: SuppliedSteve Matai will tell you Sonny Bill Williams was always destined for greatness – as long as the skinny high school boy put on some size.
Well, he hasn’t failed in the greatness department, and the fact the Roosters stop him from doing excess weights so he doesn’t get too big is a reflection of the specimen he is.
Matai and Williams, as well as Warriors five-eighth Thomas Leuluai, played schoolboy football together at Mount Albert Grammar School in Auckland. The Manly centre was a grade above Williams and had already been playing in the school’s first grade side for two years before the Roosters back-rower was called up to the top side, however Williams and Leuluai made an immediate impact.
”I’m a bit older than the boys, so I was playing in the First XIII before them,” Matai said on Monday. ”But they came straight into the team and were named captain and vice-captain. Sonny was the captain. I was like, ‘C’mon man I’ve been playing here for two years’. But they played for New Zealand all through the grades. They were the ones with all the experience. I think they deserved it.
”We were close … it’s good to see us playing in the top level.”
Matai insists there was never any doubt over Williams’ ability, with everyone at the school aware of what he would likely achieve as a professional.
”He was a gun, he made all the teams,” Matai said. ”We knew he was going to be big, he was a bit skinny but we knew if he started doing a bit of weights he was going to be a machine. You can see that now.
”He was here with the Bulldogs when I first came [to Manly]. We hung out a lot and met up to have a few beers. He was at my 21st. We lost contact when he went back to rugby but I’m just glad we’re playing first grade and we’re here for the big game. We message each other every now and then, we haven’t had heaps to do with each other. We just say g’day and how you going after the game.”
Williams has managed to gain a large posse of admirers since returning to rugby league this season. The Roosters enforcer has rebuilt a reputation severely tarnished after he walked out on the Bulldogs in 2008 to play rugby union. But Matai is adamant it came as no surprise to see Williams achieve success in both codes.
”It’s not hard with him, he’s an athlete, and athletes can fit straight into anything,” he said. ”He went to boxing and fit in there, he went to rugby and fit in there. It just shows what an athlete he is. Hopefully we can do a job on him on Sunday.
”They adore him here [in Australia] and it’s nothing different back home.
”They love him there and I’m sure they want to see him back in rugby over there. But hopefully we can keep him here.”
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