Born: 5 August, 1984 – Auckland
Test record: 12 Tests (2006-10) – 1 try, 3 goals (10 points)
Tours: 2006 Tri Nations, 2008 World Cup, 2009 Four Nations
Though Steve Matai largely failed to deliver his top-shelf best in 12 Tests for New Zealand from 2006-10, the classy attacker and renowned backline hitman was unquestionably one of the finest NRL centres of his era during a 12-season, 230-game tenure at Manly.
Auckland-born Matai played junior football with Bay Roskill, Ponsoby and Richmond, before honing his craft with Marist Richmond Brothers in the Bartercard Cup and Queensland Cup outfit Ipswich Jets.
Snapped up by Manly Sea Eagles, the 20-year-old Matai made 11 rookie-season appearances in 2005 and snared a place in the Kiwis’ 2006 Four Nations squad after a fine follow-up NRL campaign that garnered 10 tries in 24 games.
Matai featured at centre in four of the Kiwis’ five matches during the tournament, including the epic final in Sydney that resulted in golden point defeat to the Kangaroos.
Injuries hampered the tyro’s progress in 2007 but he returned in time to play in Manly’s 34-8 grand final loss to Melbourne. He was named in the New Zealand side for the post-season Test against Australia in Wellington but was sent off for an ugly high tackle on opposite Mark Gasnier as the hosts sunk to a record 58-0 loss. The resultant suspension precluded Matai’s involvement on the subsequent tour of Britain and France.
Matai capped a stellar 2008 season with a grand final winner’s ring courtesy of the Sea Eagles’ 40-0 rout of the Storm. He featured in the Kiwis’ pre-World Cup match against Tonga and pool fixtures against Australia and England – kicking three goals along the way – but missed selection for the semi and final.
The 24-year-old was selected for another end-of-year campaign in 2009, scoring his sole Test try against Tonga before playing in the 20-all draw with Australia and the 62-12 drubbing of France in the Four Nations. Matai made his last appearance for the Kiwis’ in the 12-8 Anzac Test loss in 2010.
But he continued to be one of the most consistent, dynamic and defensively-feared centres in the premiership, scoring a career-high 14 tries in 2010 and celebrating in another grand final triumph in 2011 after the Sea Eagles defeated the Warriors.
Matai played in another grand final in 2013 – a loss to the Roosters – and brought up 200 first-grade appearances for Manly in 2014, while amassing tallies of 12 and 13 tries during those seasons, respectively.
A neck injury sidelined Matai in 2016 and eventually forced him into retirement before he could return to the field in 2017, scuppering a bid to play for Samoa – his parents’ country of birth – at the World Cup.