In his last formal media interview Manu Vatuvei was asked how he would feel if there was a statue erected of him outside the Warriors stadium one day.

"No way," he said with a laugh, "No one would come to the games."

That response was typically self effacing but far from the truth. If the Warriors decide to immortalise former legends in concrete - as is common practice overseas - Vatuvei would be in the first column.

In terms of impact, status, popularity and on field contribution, he's only matched by Stacey Jones and Simon Mannering in the history of the club.


Many others deserve recognition, including Awen Guttenbeil for his toughness, Lance Hohaia for his durability (only man to play in both grand finals), Ruben Wiki for his legacy, Steve Price for his leadership, Micheal Luck for his sacrifices, Ben Matulino for his service and Shaun Johnson for his brilliance.

But Vatuvei achieved his apotheosis in Auckland. There have been 218 players pull on the Warriors jersey since 1995, but only one "Beast". No other player has captured the imagination of the fan base, for such a long period. He was the kid from Otara, with as humble an upbringing as you could imagine, who made good.

Among the endless round of interviews last week, Vatuvei mentioned that he never imagined he would play one NRL game, and seeing the smiles on his parents' faces after his 2004 debut remains a career highlight.

But he's managed so much more, becoming the face of the club.

"When you think of the Warriors, you think of Manu," Johnson said last week.

He had his flaws - especially early in his career under the high ball - and was always vulnerable when made to turn. He was often a polarising figure. His heroics and try scoring tended to be taken for granted, but his blunders were magnified.

That was unfair. Vatuvei worked hard on his deficiencies, and at his peak, in 2010 and 2011, was probably the best wing in the world. He was almost unstoppable, and a big factor in the Warriors' march to the Grand Final. "He was another prop out there and made our job a lot easier," Matulino said. "Especially those carries coming off our line. Not many people want to do those tough runs but Manu always stepped up to the plate."

After his NRL debut in 2004 he played 12 games the following season, but really came on the radar during the 2005 Tri Nations series.

Manu Vatuvei and his family walk onto the field renamed Manu Vatuvei Stadium. Photo / Photosport
Manu Vatuvei and his family walk onto the field renamed Manu Vatuvei Stadium. Photo / Photosport

"I first saw Manu when he was playing for Otahuhu in the Bartercard Cup," said former Kiwis coach Brian McClennan. "I was coaching Mt Albert and he killed us that day. You could see he was going to be special. It's like when you see a Sonny Bill [Williams], a Stacey [Jones], a Henry Paul for the first time ... players that stand out. Manu was one of those."

The teenager played five games during that Kiwis campaign, scoring two memorable tries in the 24-0 final win over the Kangaroos at Elland Road in Leeds.

"That tour probably made him," Mannering said. "When he came back to the Warriors, he was a lot more confident."

The following year, he scored 10 tries for the Warriors, starting an improbable streak. His feat of scoring at least 10 tries across 10 consecutive NRL seasons will surely never be topped. It's too hard. And he managed it despite being in a middling team (only four playoff runs) and having to deal with a succession of injuries.

Indeed, maybe Vatuvei's try-scoring feats will only now be truly appreciated. He's one of only 11 players to top 150 NRL tries, out-scoring league royalty such as Steve Renouf, Nigel Vagana and Phil Blake, and only Billy Slater (178) has more among active players.

His prolific strike rate (0.67) adds to his lustre. In the modern era, only Brett Stewart (0.70) has a better tries-per-game ratio and Vatuvei is ahead of other try kings such as Steve Menzies (0.50), Terry Lamb (0.47), Nathan Merritt (0.65) and Hazem El-Masri (0.50).

"For a long time, he was impossible to stop from close range," McClennan said. "Defenders couldn't bundle him out and he got tries that no one else could."

Vatuvei also put his body on the line like few others, before or since. Every run had the potential for a bone rattling collision, given the ferocity of his charges and the opposition's determination to stop him.

"Back at Melbourne players were told there had to be three or four in the tackle against him," recalled Stephen Kearney. "He had to be stopped and he was targeted in a big way. It was the same at Brisbane. But how many times did he break a tackle, or leave a defender on the ground?"

Vatuvei is only 31, but has soaked up an incredible amount of punishment.

"He's got an extremely high level of pain tolerance," said long-time Warriors doctor John Mayhew. "He played a lot of games in a sub par condition but never shows it."

"He set a standard," Matulino said. "You would see him charge - or hit someone - and it fires everyone else up."

Vatuvei spent his day yesterday watching the Warriors NSW Cup team - "I want to spend as much time with the boys" - and departs for Britain tomorrow.

He'll be missed, but not easily forgotten. There are reminders of him everywhere around the Warriors HQ, from large posters in reception and in the dressing room, to boards denoting the various gym records he still holds.

But it will be a tough goodbye. He is the longest-serving player in the club's history. More than 100 men have played beside him in Warriors colours, but you'd struggle to find a bad word said about Vatuvei.

"It's hard to compare but I'd put him right up there," McClennan said. "For all the players, he was the guy they wanted next to them. For a player that means more than anything. With every team that Manu has ever been in, everyone looks around, sees the big fella there and feel better."