When Simon Mannering first arrived in Auckland to train at the Warriors, his bed was a single mattress on the floor.

He lived in a bare room without a chest of drawers and was woken most mornings by a teammate to go to training.

Mannering was a few months shy of his 18th birthday and had been playing league for barely a year.

He was a skinny kid from Nelson who looked like "a bit of a hippie", with an improbable goal to make it as a professional footy player.


Today, Mannering is a bona fide league legend, one of the greats of the sport, and just the 16th player to achieve 300 NRL games for one club. But when he talks about being lucky to play one first grade game, let alone a triple century, it's not just his trademark modesty on display.

To truly appreciate Mannering's achievements, you need to understand his journey.

Former Warriors wing Francis Meli recalls: "When he turned up at my door, I thought, 'who is this kid?' He looked like he had come straight off a beach, like a surfer type.

"He had longish hair and was tall and lanky; he didn't have a rugby league build. But I had to trust the ability of the scouts and the coach, saying he had potential."

It was June 2004. Mannering had been scouted playing for the Wellington Orcas, after a whirlwind rise. He first played league during his final year at Nelson College in 2003, after local league development officer Paul Bergman persuaded the 1st XV coach there to put together a scratch team for the national schoolboys tournament.

After just three games in the 13-a-side code, Mannering made the New Zealand Schoolboys side, then moved to the capital to sign with Bergman at the Orcas. He made the Junior Kiwis that same year, and was signed to a part-time deal at the Warriors.

Meli, then a seven-year veteran at the club, had taken a call from coach Daniel Anderson.

"He said, 'we've found someone and he's got a bit of potential'," recalls Meli. "'Are you willing to take this guy on because you've done well with some of the other kids.'"

Meli had some spare rooms at his house in Glen Eden, and another promising teenage prospect Epalahame Lauaki had recently stayed with him for a period.


"I went, 'oh man ... really?'" laughs Meli. "I just wanted my freedom, back to normal routine. But I agreed to do it and Simon ended up staying for a while."

Retiring Warriors legend Simon Mannering. Photo / Photosport
Retiring Warriors legend Simon Mannering. Photo / Photosport

Mannering arrived for an extended training block with the Warriors, returning to the capital for Bartercard Cup games.

"Duane Mann drove me out to Francis' place," recalls Mannering. "I think he completely forgot I was coming [and] when I turned up, he was having an afternoon kip. He said, 'oh shit, that's right' ... and that was the start of my stay."

Mannering's accommodation at 'Camp Meli' was spartan.

"I showed him his room — it was a mattress on the floor," said Meli. "I said to him, 'this is the way things are'. I gave him a wake-up time and a time to go to training. They were the little fundamentals you introduce. A lot of kids think that sport is all luxury but you have to start somewhere."

Like most teenagers, Mannering could be difficult to rouse in the morning.

"Training was full on and pretty tiring and he was a bit of a sleepyhead," says Meli. "I would get up, open the door, [and] I don't think there was a time when he was already up. He was trying to squeeze in that extra five minutes.

"I used to walk in, kick the side of the little mattress. 'Up, let's go man — if you miss breakfast, that's your problem.' It must have been tough for him but he adjusted quickly. He realised pretty soon; you give it a good crack, or you go back to doing what you were doing."

It wasn't the ideal time to be at Mt Smart. After highly successful campaigns in 2002 (grand final) and 2003 (preliminary final), the Warriors crashed at the start of the following season. There were crisis meetings and honesty sessions, and cult figure Ali Lauitiiti left in April after clashing with chief executive Mick Watson. By June, Anderson had departed, replaced by Tony Kemp.

"I was trying not to get in the way," says Mannering. "Daniel Anderson has just been sacked, so it was quite a tumultuous time. I tried to fly under the radar. At training, I had no idea really, I was still learning the game. But it was one of those pinch yourself moments and I just tried to work hard."

Mannering was commuting between Auckland and Wellington for domestic games, and having the time of his life.

"Back then, there was no reserve grade or under-20s," Mannering says. "I'd still fly back down to Wellington on the weekend and play for them. Even that was cool. I was tripping round playing footy, getting paid for it, though it wasn't much."

The teenager began to make his mark — and turn heads — in his first pre-season at the end of 2004.

"It was his work ethic," says Meli. "Pre-season is made to break people, and that's why a lot don't make it, because they can't go through that immense training, especially young guys. But he was a kid that didn't complain, didn't whinge and just got on with it. I remember [captain] Steve Price, saying 'he's like me when I was young ... same build, same attitude'."

Mannering made swift progress, and made his NRL debut on June 26, 2005, against the Brisbane Broncos in a Warriors team that included Stacey Jones, Manu Vatuvei, Lance Hohaia and Meli.

Young Simon Mannering. Photo / Photosport
Young Simon Mannering. Photo / Photosport

"I played small minutes in a couple of games, then missed a couple of weeks, then played three full games at centre," Mannering says.

"That was cool to be in the starting team and play a whole game in my very first year at the club. It was something I never expected to happen."

After leaving Meli's house, Mannering had a short stint with a home stay family, before a spell in a city flat with Wellington friends. He then moved to the eastern suburbs, sharing a house with a couple of Warriors teammates.

"Todd Bryne bought a place and said 'move in if you want'," says Mannering. "Grant Rovelli joined us soon afterwards. It was awesome, I loved it. I was still pretty young and they were fun times."

The house in Kohimarama was the archetypal bachelor pad.

"We were all young blokes and initially Todd's missus wasn't there," says Rovelli. "Simon hadn't been long out of home, so he had zero skills around cooking. He pretty much ate tins of tuna, flat stick. Sometimes he would leave them in his room, so it was off limits."

Mannering was a keen guitarist, and away from football, the trio bonded over their love of rock.

"All of us had an interest in music and Todd also played guitar," says Rovelli. "Simon loved AC/DC and Metallica; I introduced him to Red Hot Chili Peppers and Foo Fighters and he started learning that. He was pretty talented."

When asked for fun memories from that time, Rovelli fondly recalls a bye week in 2006, when a few friends visited from Australia.

"We had a party that weekend and it got pretty loose," says Rovelli. "It always ended up with Simon plugging his guitar into the amp and pumping out AC/DC, seriously loud. Kohimarama is a pretty nice neighbourhood and Todd had a really nice house there, a couple of blocks from the beach. So you can imagine what the neighbours were like, when at 12 o'clock at night this big unit was in the lounge, pumping out Back in Black and You Shook Me All Night Long."

On the field, Rovelli was in awe of his humble flatmate, particularly his mental and physical toughness.

"He was really mature, took care of himself and got things done at training," says Rovelli. "From those early days, he was someone you could rely on, and he had those leadership qualities.

"He was one of those guys you loved running out with. I don't know how his body has handled it ... even when he was a young guy, there was no self preservation at all.

"I remember a game against Newcastle when he was carrying a shoulder injury. Early in that match, [Kiwis prop] Craig Smith picked out Simon and ran straight at him. Simon absolutely belted him, smashed him on to his back. That was awesome — he was half injured and still did that. [But] there weren't many times I can remember Simon playing 100 per cent fit; he always had some kind of niggle or injury."

Reuben Wiki, Epalahame Lauaki and Simon Mannering in 2007. Photo / Getty
Reuben Wiki, Epalahame Lauaki and Simon Mannering in 2007. Photo / Getty

By the end of that year, Mannering had scored his first NRL try (and nine in total) and played in 17 first grade games, as well as making his Kiwis debut in the Tri Nations. There have been another 270-odd matches since, a grand final appearance, six years as Warriors captain and a record five Player of the Year awards. Mannering has come to symbolise the Warriors, lauded alongside Jones as the club's greatest ever.

"Simon is in rare air," says former teammate Micheal Luck, who played seven seasons alongside Mannering. "I don't think what he has done will be repeated any time soon, maybe ever, for the Warriors."

If only the well-heeled folk of Kohimarama had known there was a legend in their midst back in 2006, when a kid in an AC/DC T-shirt, jeans and black converse sneakers would take centre stage in the household post-match celebrations.

"We would have a few drinks, maybe go to town and then come back," says Rovelli. "It was a two-storey house and the lounge was elevated, so in there you could be seen by all the neighbours. And there was Simon on his guitar, smashing out AC/DC with all his might."