NRL: Biographer's cat-and-mouse game with Warriors great Simon Mannering

For several months, Newshub senior producer Angus Gillies has been working on a biography about Warriors and Kiwis rugby league great Simon Mannering.

As Mannering brings up his 300th game - and one of his last - for the Auckland-based NRL club on Friday night, Gillies provides an exclusive preview of the book and an insight into the quiet determination that has made him one of our most underrated sports stars.  

 Earlier this year I was asked to work on a sports book. The answer to this question always lies in another question.

"Who is it?"

"Simon Mannering."

"I'm keen."

I met with Simon at a cafe in Mangere Bridge, not far from where he lives. We chatted and worked out pretty quickly we could work together, and I figured out an angle for the book. 

Simon Mannering
Simon Mannering poses with mural artist Emily Gardner, aka Adore. Photo credit: Photosport.

My previous sports books had been on Matthew Ridge, Justin Marshall, Adam Parore and my Scottish old man's time at Glasgow Celtic FC. They were all gifted storytellers and raconteurs, and the three Kiwis were polarising characters, who every fan had a strong opinion about.

An illiterate sock puppet could have done their books - some would say one did.

Simon was going to be different. He'd be a challenge.

The traits he was most famous for were traits that make it hard to tell his story. He was very modest and humble. He hated big-noters.

But I began to get this idea. His story was the story of so many kids who had an above-average, but not exceptional set of sporting skills.

The difference was he got the very best out of everything he had every week. His career was a blueprint to how it could be done - even if you weren't a sporting genius - through sheer willpower.

He reminded me of my older brother John, who played national league football with Gisborne City from the age of 15 to his late 30s or early 40s.

John was a hard, no-nonsense centre-back. There was nothing flashy about his game, but he was the first name written down on the team list every week, just like Simon Mannering.

This year, Simon and I spent many hours chatting over his kitchen table, as I collected anecdotes for the book. One of my challenges was that every time I mentioned one of his personal successes in the manuscript, he crossed it out with a red marker, with the word 'out' next to it.

So I began looking through my interviews with other players to find the same incident and restore those sections from a different source. It developed into a bit of a cat-and-mouse game, which I was determined to win.

With his 300th game coming up this week, I thought I'd share a few quotes I'd garnered while researching the book. They may or may not end up in the finished product, but I thought they could put his career in perspective.

Warriors and former Kiwis coach Stephen Kearney
"By the end of the 2018 season, only two Kiwis will have played 300 NRL games - Simon and Ruben Wiki - but Ruben played about 220 of his games in Australia.

"All that travel takes it out of you and yet every week for years, Simon plays the most minutes, makes the most tackles and until recently, he rarely missed a game.

Stephen Kearney
Warriors coach Stephen Kearney. Photo credit: Photosport.

"He's just gone about his business, doing all the detail right, drinking his smoothies and making sure he's eating the right food, doing the right exercise and making minor adjustments to his game to keep improving it.

"To me, that's a real champion.

"Simon's won the Player of the Year award five times at the Warriors. So where does he sit among the club's best players?

"To me, right at the top - alongside Stacey Jones. They are players with two very different sets of qualities, but they're together at the top for me.

"It's a toss-up between those two - and then daylight. It's a fair gap to the next."

Former Warriors trainer Craig Walker
"If I could name my best team - my best 17 - he's in it. He's up there with the Brad Fittlers and the Andrew Johnses in my book.

"If he was born in Australia, he would have played State of Origin for sure and maybe even Australia.

"He deserves to win a Grand Final. Just being in a Grand Final, like he was with the Warriors in 2011, is an amazing experience and an amazing achievement, but he deserves to win one. 

 Craig Walker
Former Warriors trainer Craig Walker. Photo credit: Photosport

"You knew what you were going to get every week from Simon. I was at the club from 2005 to the end of 2012 and I can't remember him playing a bad game the whole time I was there.

"That included games when he probably shouldn't have taken the field, because he was too sick or injured, but he would play anyway. He delivered an eight or nine out of 10 every week - and sometimes a 10 - but never below that.

"You never had to ask Simon for more, because you always knew he was giving everything."

Former Warriors teammate Micheal Luck
"The main strength of his career was that he's been consistent when others around him haven't been. He's carried that team for a fair portion of his career.

"You've got to wonder, if the burden on him had been eased a few times, he might have played a year or two longer. He's been the rock behind the club for a dozen years now.

Michael Luck
Former Warrior Michael Luck. Photo credit: Photosport

"When the pieces were being moved all around the chess board, he was one that stood strong, and a fantastic quality he has as a player and as a human being is that there’s not too much between his best and his worst."

Former Warriors coach Ivan Cleary
"As a coach, you'd feel bad, because you just weren't giving him the time he deserved, because you're constantly dealing with all the problem children or the people who grab the attention more.

"But he didn't seek attention - he got on with the job. He knew exactly what he needed to do day after day after day, week after week after week.

Ivan Cleary
Former Warriors coach Ivan Cleary. Photo credit: Photosport.

"His best game wasn't too different to his worst game, and he'd turn up week after week and deliver it - eight out of 10 every week."

Former flatmate and Warriors hooker George Gatis
"Simon was the most easy-going kid. Everything was effortless for him.

"He'd do the fitness, and he'd always be there or thereabouts at the front. He was always quiet and he took everything in.

"Afterwards, he'd be sitting on the couch at home, playing his guitar - and he was a talented guitar player as well. He was good at everything he did and it all seemed effortless.

George Gatis.
Former Warriors hooker George Gatis. Photo credit: Photosport

"When he got his opportunity to play first grade, that just seemed like another effortless transition. We'd play conditioning games at training and whichever group Simon was in would win the game.

"He was quiet in the group at training, but you'd rarely ever see him drop a ball or miss a tackle or make a mistake, and that probably summarises his whole career."

Simon Mannering: Warrior, published by Upstart Press, is due for sale in November.

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