He’s league’s hardest man — and its most mysterious. Alan Perrott goes in search of the real Simon Mannering.
If Simon Mannering hates attention, being called a noter is even worse.
So, back in Nelson for a family Christmas, he covered his name on his sponsored car - after all, you can guess the reaction of an old mate spotting him in it as it shouts "Look at me, I'm famous." It's also why, unless he's on duty, you'll never see him about town in his Warriors gear. But then you're more likely to spot a moa than Mannering on the ran-tan.
As captain of two of the highest profile sports teams in the country - the Kiwis and the Warriors - his determination to win is exceeded only by his determination to avoid the limelight.
The birth of Zeke, his first child, was never going to feature on the cover of a women's magazine: this is a guy whose talking is left, to a very literal degree, on the field. Which means we've only ever had a sliver of his exceptional story.
"Yeah, he'll hate me talking about him," says Dr John Mayhew, "which is probably a good reason to do it. He could do with some accolades."
After 200 games with the All Blacks and another 10 years with the Warriors, Mayhew has seen his share of tough guys and he says they don't come any tougher than Simon Mannering. Not even legendary All Blacks hard man Buck Shelford.
His first inkling came in 2007, when the then 19-year-old Mannering was pulled from his sick bed to make up the numbers against St George. He had been struggling with a gastric virus all week, losing 5kg in the process, but it was a case of needs-must and after being checked out he was declared medically safe to play. The plan had been to coax him through to halftime, then Jerome Ropati was injured and Mannering's planned replacement went on early. No one would have suspected a drama was brewing in the coaches' box, though, as the teenaged centre ran in two tries and smashed into every tackle with venom.
But he was a grey ruin when the half-time hooter sounded. "He was only running on three cylinders so he was stuffed and looked terrible," says Mayhew. "I took a look at him then I was about to move on when he said, 'Oh, and my hand's a bit sore', just as casual as you like. I had a look and he'd broken it. We taped it up and sent him out again. He just shrugged it off. Remarkable."
Just as remarkably, he was named man of the match in the 44-16 win and ended up back in bed before the first celebratory beer was cracked. The story has been kept under wraps until now.
"We all knew he'd been sick as a dog," says Micheal Luck, one of his team mates that day, "but his threshhold for pain is unbelievable. I look at the guys the same age here at the [North Queensland] Cowboys and there's no way any of them could do what he did that day."
Says Mayhew: "I've seen guys play with broken bones and others get pulled out of sick beds, but never both at once and he's the kind of guy who doesn't think anything of it. He's up there with Buck [Shelford], one of those unflappable, undemonstrative men without the bravado who don't need to throw their fists to show how hard they are. If I was asked to choose a league team he'd be the first name I'd write down."
From that game he's gone on to become a four-time Warriors player of the year, captaining them to an NRL final and racking up the second highest number of appearances behind Stacey Jones, while also playing for the Kiwis in World Cup and Four Nations wins before this month captaining his country to our first three-peat run of wins against the mighty Australians since 1953.
Which isn't a bad run for a bloke who grew up on dreams of an All Blacks jersey. Well, there wasn't much demand for league in Nelson and none whatsoever back home in nearby Motueka. His only exposure to the 13-man game was the odd televised NRL match. He'd tape his ears like his favourite players and run outside to kick a ball around.
"I was just a sports fan, I guess," says Mannering. "As a kid I played football, athletics and cricket, too. I grew up with the All Blacks but I watched the Warriors and the Kiwis, too - everyone going hammer and tongs, I loved that. There was just nowhere to play the game, so I never gave it a thought."
He watched his first live game as a third former at Nelson College when a group of boarders from Papua New Guinea put a team together for the national secondary schools competition. Other than that, Mannering remained a rugbyhead and, by sixth form, he was settled in at centre in the 1st XV.
His coach was PE teacher Peter Grigg. "He was always a very physical player, quite clever but, really, he came to school to eat his lunch and play sport. He was a lout from Mot, but I think he'd have made a very good rugby player if he'd stuck with it." And prefect material? "Shit, no."
One year behind him at school was comedian Guy Williams, now a regular fixture on radio and television.
"We hardly saw him. He was like this urban legend because he was always off playing or being a superhero or something. I did play with him once though. It's my claim to fame. It was for the under-15s in the annual Nelson College-Marlborough Boys exchange and he was subbed off at halftime to save a cat from a burning building or something. It was the highlight of my rugby career. I always talk about it. Last year on my radio show co-hosts cold-called him to see if he remembered me ... he didn't but don't tell anyone that. I still talk about him like we were best mates."
Mannering's first go at league came in 2003 when the region's league promoter, Paul Bergman, suggested some of Grigg's players should form another team for the nationals once their rugby season was over. Given it had been the worst season in the 15 years the coach had been with them - normally top four shoo-ins, they'd finished eighth out of 15 - Grigg figured the extra work would do them good.
After three games it was clear that Mannering had taken a shine to this new sport, he was even selected for the New Zealand Schoolboys team then invited to Wellington to play in the region's under-18 side. With his parents' agreement, he headed north for the first term of 2004 with the intention of returning to school for rugby and the rest of his seventh form year.
They're still waiting. In one of the more remarkable code swaps of recent times, Mannering went from complete newbie to the national senior club competition then on to signing with the Warriors in only six months.
But then he was always going to stand out in Wellington as the only 193cm (6ft 4in) Pakeha in a team of Pasifika and Maori that included Kiwi hooker and new Warriors signing, Issac Luke.
"He came to us pretty raw, an unknown who needed plenty of game time," says team coach Leighton Karawana. "But what you see now is basically the guy he was then - a quiet, modest man, very mature for his age, even if you couldn't get much out of him."
It wasn't an easy run though. It was the youngster's first time away from home, dossing on Paul Bergman's couch and labouring for an insulation company by day then training at night. He would have thrown it in if it hadn't been for his family.
"They were massive," says Mannering, "especially my old man. When I started talking about going back to Nelson he pushed me to stay on and give it a real crack, and I was pretty set on going home."
Did Karawana see a future captain in his strapping centre? "Yes and no. You never really heard much from him but, at the same time, he was a total team man who never went for the glory. I mean you get the loud guys and others who lead from the back. Mannering leads from the front. He just does it silently.
"And he knew how to handle himself. He got the boys' respect through doing rather than saying. They knew he was new to the game but after seeing his attitude at training they treated him as one of them straight away."
Mannering played one under-18 match at Mt Smart before returning a few weeks later with the Wellington Bartercard Card Cup team for a Warriors' curtain-raiser. If the stands were practically empty, someone was paying attention because a few days later he got a call asking if he'd consider moving north on a part-time contract.
The idea was that he'd train with the Warriors during the week then return to Wellington each weekend to play for the Orcas.
"I don't think I was really considered a chance of playing [for the Warriors]," says Mannering. "They didn't have an under-20 or anything like that, so it was first team footy or nothing. And I was still pretty new to the game. I don't think I knew half the rules and I was still getting used to being smashed by the big blokes. But they gave me an advance. It wasn't a lot but it was enough to not have to work for four months, which meant I could just train and play."
Typically, he kept his eventual first team debut on June 26, 2005, under his hat. It was an important game, too, the club's 10th anniversary match against their first and greatest foe, the star-studded Brisbane Broncos.
"I didn't even know he was playing until his father told me," says his mother, Wendy Mannering. "I had to call him and say, 'Why didn't you tell me? I'm your mother, I want to know'. But that's Simon. He hates fuss, which is really frustrating when I want to shout from the rooftops how amazing he is."
In his defence, Mannering says it was a spate of injuries rather than form that won him a spot on the bench and, with hindsight, he doesn't think he was ready. After looking in awe at his team mates in the changing room, he didn't expect game time, then came the tap: "Right, get ready, you're up."
Aside from the winning 30-18 score, what happened from there remains a blur.
His mum remembers though. "I remember him running out. I just yelled and then held my breath. You can hear the meat smashing together which isn't an easy thing to watch as a mother and I can't say I've ever enjoyed that part of it. I just scream at the television 'You leave him alone' and concentrate on getting him through the game in one piece."
On the bright side, Mannering didn't think she'd be suffering for long. He wasn't sure at all he was going to make it. Then the club signed Australian lock Micheal Luck and things turned around. As they lived near each other they'd carpool to Mt Smart and talk. Both were from small towns (Luck is from Gratton in Queensland) and found themselves in a new city where they didn't know anyone.
"He was one of the first blokes I met and we hit it off straight away," says Luck. "Mostly it was about AC/DC."
The pair bonded even further over the battered old Holden Kingswood Mannering rescued from under a tree in Nelson. It's now a fully restored V8-powered beast.
Life suddenly became more fun, to the point that Luck is grateful there was no such thing as Twitter and Instagram back then. But it was what Mannering was beginning to show on the field that impressed him most.
"People really don't get what he's about from watching 80 minutes of footy on the television. He's one of those blokes where the difference between his best and his worst is 1 per cent so he's always had the respect of the dressing room. There were times where I'd be thinking, 'We're in trouble here', then look across and Simon's just as unflappable, just as determined as always, and you'd think, 'Okay, we're going to be all right'. So yeah, I'd welcome him into any side I played in."
The year that announced Mannering's arrival was 2006. After being handed his first Kiwis test jersey by Ruben Wiki, he played every game of their Tri-Nations tournament at the new position of lock and was named rookie of the year. After proving himself time and again he was made captain in February 2013. Then, in June last year, Sir Peter "Mad Butcher" Leitch put together a video presentation to mark Mannering's 200th Warriors appearance. To see domestic stars such as Valerie Adams and Joseph Parker paying their respects is one thing, but the willingness of regular on-field foes like North Queensland Cowboys' co-captain Johnathan Thurston to take part says something else.
"It's that he's so tremendously well respected by everyone who plays with or against him," says Dr Mayhew. "I can't imagine a player you could find who'd criticise him. Sure, some opponents might not think he's as good as I do, but there is still this respect for him as a player, as a person and for his values, much like [All Black captain] Richie McCaw, really."
Off-field, though, it's hard to say where he stands given some comments on social media. For example, Radio Sport host Tony Veitch recently posted some stats on Facebook showing Mannering has made the most tackles while missing the least of any NRL player this season. Basically, he's Gandalf on a bridge, yet the post was followed by comments like "Totally solid player, but by no means should be a captain. Not mongrel enough" and "It's coz he always goes in as second tackler".
There's just no pleasing some people and given the weekly battering Mannering takes there probably won't be time for his detractors to be convinced before his body tells him to stop. Repeated blows to the throat have already ravaged his voice.
As for how long he has left in the game, his old mate Luckie suggests ("without putting words in his mouth") that the now 29-year-old is unlikely to become a 38-year-old warhorse who can't give up.
Right now, though, Mannering is still riding the buzz of the Aussie three-peat - "there aren't too many better feelings than doing something like that alongside your mates when you've all been through so much pain and worked so hard to achieve it" - and then there's the unrealised dream of the Warriors' first NRL championship.
But he does admit to post-league thoughts. For starters, there's family - his partner Anna has carried a huge load for years and it seems Zeke might like at least one brother or sister. Then there's his hankering for a tilt at building. Some mates back home are in the trade and that may be where he ultimately ends up, as he says he'd hate to ever have to call himself an Aucklander: "No offence intended."
Marketing is likely to be his biggest problem, though. It's very hard to imagine him putting his name on the side of the van.
The Warriors play the Newcastle Knights tomorrow at 4pm at Mt Smart Stadium.