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Growing up next door to former Fijian flyer Marika Vunibaka, Manasa Mataele didn't have to look far for a rugby role model.
Little did Mataele know, but years later he would be treading a similar path to Vunibaka, charging down the touchline and scoring tries for the Crusaders.
The 20-year-old is in his debut season of Super Rugby, but made a major impression in Friday's 50-3 rout of the Sunwolves, showing his fine finishing ability with three tries.
Mataele displayed a liking for the touchline corner, diving into a pool of water from the heavy rain.
"I just saw the puddle and thought that reminds me of back home playing in the mud."
He is hoping for another start when the Crusaders attempt to make it eight wins on the trot when they face the Stormers at AMI Stadium on Saturday.
Mataele supported the Crusaders as a youngster in Suva, which was helped by the fact Vunibaka, who won two Super Rugby titles with the side between 2000-04, lived next door.
"He was our neighbour. I've seen him play. He didn't really talk about it much from when he was here, but I knew he played for the Crusaders and he was good."
The retired Vunibaka and Mataele both attended Marist Brothers High School in Suva.
While he looked up to Vunibaka, it was All Black and Blues speedster Joe Rokocoko, Mataele idolised most.
Sometimes he'd even try to imitate him while chucking a plastic bottle around instead of a rugby ball, before taking up the sport properly when he was nine.
"People think I look like him."
Mataele's transition to the Crusaders and Super Rugby has been eased by having his uncle, All Black Seta Tamanivalu, four years his senior, also in the team.
The duo live together in Christchurch and Mataele said uncle Seta had helped his nerves leading into his debut against the Blues in round four, which he scored his first Super Rugby try in.
"He'll tell me don't worry about it, especially on my debut. He would just say, 'Have fun, know what to do and know your role'. All the boys are professional ... just do your stuff."
Few people were happier than Tamanivalu to hear Mataele, who plays NPC for Taranaki, was heading to the Crusaders.
The Blues also chased Mataele's signature, but he opted for the red-and-blacks because they "have a good reputation for building up young talent".
Mataele finds it difficult to comprehend how far he's come in the space of three years.
Snapped up by the Taranaki rugby academy after scoring a double for Fiji under-18 against their Australia counterparts in 2014, he's quickly risen through the ranks.
He played Mitre 10 Cup for the first time last year and admits a Super Rugby contract came along much quicker than anticipated.
Mataele thought his first year with the Crusaders would mostly be spent on the training paddock and was delighted to have gained a couple of starts, and four tries, already.
His family in Fiji were proud as punch and always call him and Tamanivalu after games. There have been plenty of well wishes from back home in the islands.
"First when I got picked into the [Crusaders], they didn't even know that. I didn't even tell anyone. I got heaps of missed calls and texts, saying they were proud of me.
"When I made my debut, same thing again, heaps of texts. They're really happy - especially when we win."
Crusaders assistant backs coach Leon MacDonald was pleased by the impact Mataele had made early in the season.
"He's just a young player on the rise. He's got so much ability.
"He's only been in New Zealand for a couple of years and the amount of information he's taken in the last three months and learned [is phenomenal]."
Meanwhile, MacDonald said midfielder Ryan Crotty was in contention for the Stormers clash after missing the Sunwolves game with an ankle issue.
Crotty got through training fully on Tuesday. "Going by the way he looked at training, he looked really good. I'm guessing more likely than unlikely," MacDonald said.
SOURCE: STUFF NZ/PACNEWS
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