Retired rugby league star Manu Vatuvei has pleaded guilty to importation of methamphetamine.
The former Warriors player and reality TV celebrity, 35, admitted the crime while appearing at a mostly empty Manukau courtroom on Wednesday alongside his lawyer.
The charge carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. Vatuvei is set to be sentenced in December. Judge Jonathan Moses allowed him to remain free on bail, with tight curfew restrictions, until then.
The plea nearly brings to an end to a nearly two-year legal saga, including 18 months in which he was identified only as "one of the biggest names in New Zealand sport" due to his ultimately failed fight for name suppression.
Vatuvei - listed in court documents by his full name, Manu Mapuhola Mafi-Vatuvei - was one of four people arrested in 2019 following a joint investigation by Counties Manukau police and Customs into methamphetamine supply.
He was charged with importing, possessing and supplying methamphetamine in September, October and November that year. Prosecutors intend to drop the additional allegations at sentencing in lieu of Wednesday's plea to the representative charge.
Vatuvei kept his name suppressed from November 2019 until May 2021, when he revealed himself as the defendant in a video post to Instagram.
Name suppression was initially ordered to protect an ongoing police investigation, but in November 2020 - one year into the case - prosecutors no longer sought it. Vatuvei, however, attempted to have the suppression order continued anyway.
His lawyer argued to the District Court and later to the High Court that the league star would face extreme hardship if named and his fair trial rights would be jeopardised. But his application was declined after Crown prosecutor Jessica Pridgeon argued that being well known in and of itself didn't mean the defendant would suffer extreme hardship.
"In 2019 I was charged with importation, possession and supply of methamphetamine," Vatuvei said in his social media post the night before his suppression was set to expire.
"All these charges are accusations and I'll be fighting my innocence for these charges. I know there will be a lot of questions that are wanting answers but I've been advised from my legal team that that's all I can talk about."
Vatuvei was one of four co-defendants in the case, including his brother.
On September 14, Lopini Lautau Mafi, 48, also pleaded guilty to one representative charge of importing methamphetamine. Following the plea, he was remanded back into custody by Judge Moses. The siblings are set to be sentenced at the same hearing in December.
Michael Naufahu, 33, pleaded guilty to one charge of conspiracy to import methamphetamine last October.
A fourth co-defendant's case remains pending.
Affectionately nicknamed "the Beast" by fans, Vatuvei played for the Warriors from 2004 to 2017 - the team's top try scorer for many of those seasons - before spending his final year of professional rugby league in Europe with the Salford Red Devils.
During that same time, he represented New Zealand in 29 test matches, including the team's triumphant 2008 World Cup, during which he set a tournament record for most tries in a single match by a New Zealand player. As a result, he was named international winger of the year. He also represented Tonga twice in 2017.
In 2018, Vatuvei fought in his first and only professional boxing match as an undercard for Joseph Parker, but he hung up the gloves after discovering a brain cyst.
He then transitioned to dancing, winning reality TV series Dancing with the Stars in June 2019, just months before his arrest.
His court case is not the first time Vatuvei has faced public controversy.
In 2016, Vatuvei was one of five Warriors players who were dropped to reserve grade and stood down from test selection as punishment after they admitted taking pills and energy drinks on an unsanctioned late night out in Auckland.
"We're all embarrassed by what we did," he told the media after taking a week's medical leave. "We've got standards in our team and something that myself, having been at the club for a long time, it was not something that I liked to do.
"To all the members and sponsors, (I'm) sorry to have put you in this position."
In 2018, Vatuvei found himself at the centre of unwanted attention again after he appeared in a video promoting the Head Hunters gang. When approached by the Herald at the time, Vatuvei said he had no idea he'd be featured in the video.
"I was just there for a family day for a few friends who asked me if I could come and support it and join in with the kids," he said. "I'll always do anything for the kids – that's why I went along."
Asked if he had friends in the Head Hunters, Vatuvei said: "I've got heaps of friends everywhere – there are some in gangs and there are some who aren't in gangs."
Vatuvei and defence lawyer Vivienne Feyen both wore masks as they addressed the judge at Manukau District Court on Wednesday. The Crown prosecutor and multiple media outlets attended via audio-video link, part of the court's ongoing Covid-19 safety protocol.