Greg Inglis comparisons and ‘that’ World Cup pass: Joey Manu is on the path to greatness

New Zealand were defying the odds in the World Cup final by leading 18-16 with 20 minutes left on the clock. They’d been afforded little chance beforehand of causing an upset, yet here they were against an opposition side packed with some of the game’s true elite, including Darren Lockyer, Cameron Smith, Johnathan Thurston and Greg Inglis.

Benji Marshall got a quick play-the-ball off Jeremy Smith and chipped it into the corner looking to exert some field position pressure on the Aussies.

Billy Slater scampered across the ground and reeled the kick in on the full with one hand, setting off towards the touchline. The fullback had spotted a gap in the kick chase and attempted to shimmy around the outside of Manu Vatuvei. 

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But the big winger managed to lurch across and pushed him towards the abyss that was the touchline. Slater hurled the ball back behind him in a blind panic, only to watch on helplessly as Marshall gathered the loose ball and touched down in the corner.

“Can you believe it?” Ray Warren howled in utter bemusement on commentary.

It was one of the most remarkable sequences of play in World Cup history and made a lasting impression on Joey Manu.

“It was special. I didn’t watch too much league, but I remember watching that final,” he recalled.

“Seeing that Australia side- it was probably one of the greatest Australia sides ever. To see them boys beat them was pretty crazy as a kid.

“Obviously Benji was doing his thing. He was sort of a highlight for a lot of young Māori kids in New Zealand…I remember Benji scoring that try when Billy threw it back in.

“I was only young back then and I mainly played union growing up. But I just found that game pretty exciting. I didn’t really watch too much league, but I watched that game.”

The 2008 World Cup triumph remains a high-water mark for rugby league in New Zealand and acts as a source of motivation for Manu to also strive for legendary status with his national side. 

Australia recovered from the setback to claim the next two titles, while the Kiwis were bundled out at the quarter final stage in 2017 by Fiji in what was one of the darkest days in rugby league history for the nation.

They’ve managed to recover though under the tutelage of Michael Maguire and now boast a brutal forward pack along with what is shaping into one of their greatest spines ever with Manu, Dylan Brown, Jahrome Hughes and Brandon Smith.

New Zealand have had plenty of momentous victories since their World Cup triumph, but it is still the cornerstone of their identity; reminding each proceeding generation that anything is possible.

“There’s a lot of good memories there,” Manu said. “I felt like it made me want to play for the Kiwis one day.”

The star from the Roosters has had an incredible tournament at fullback, chewing through yardage with an unyielding appetite and proving impossible to shut down or even keep quiet on his way to two man-of-the-match awards so far.

He proved the difference against a determined Fijian outfit, cracking well over 300 running metres and providing the impetus in attack as he almost single-handedly dragged his team over the line.

The rewards for their 24-18 win over the Bati is a clash with Australia. The legends are no longer there, but a new generation of talent has arrived in time just like they always seem to do.

“My goal is to help this team win the World Cup,” Manu stated before the tournament had even started.

“I know it’ll bring a lot of happiness to a lot of kids in New Zealand.”

This is a matter that Manu knows only too well having been drawn in by the spectacle of the upset and then the subsequent celebrations in 2008.

“They won it so got to bring the trophy home,” he said.

“I remember they came to our town, and we got to see that which was pretty cool. I think it just brought a lot of rugby league fans happiness and made kids probably want to play it a bit more.

“We didn’t have much in our town, but we had sports.”

Manu has been playing like a man possessed at the back for the Kiwis and now he has his chance of matching the achievements of that famed ’08 side.

He has been cruelled at the business end of the past two seasons – copping a fractured face from a Latrell Mitchell high tackle in 2021 and then injuring his calf this year which ruled him out of the chaotic elimination final loss against South Sydney.

Yet while Manu has endured a couple of tough years domestically at the Roosters, individually he has blossomed.

“He’s got the ability to do things like GI, where all of a sudden in a game you might have pressure and then he flips the game on its head and you’re in complete control again,” Maguire said.

“Where do I think he can get to? I think he can be one of the all-time greats… There’s no reason why he can’t become one of the all-time greats of the Kiwis.”

In order to do so, Manu must just keep on keeping on when he clashes with Australia at Elland Road.  Although his source of motivation is clear in every game he plays, this is no more evident than when he features for his country.

“It’s putting on that black jersey and it does remind me a lot of home when I put on the jersey,” he said.

“Every time it’s the biggest thing that I can play for, or I can achieve in my rugby league career.”

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