Aku Uate thrives after Origin disappointment

SOMETIMES a painful setback can be the kick in the pants that transforms a good sportsman into one of the all-time greats.

And in years to come, when we reflect on the career of Newcastle Knights winger Aku Uate, in all likelihood the 2012 State of Origin series will be remembered as the making of him.

Uate was dropped for the series decider after some nervous errors in the first two games led to the Blues conceding tries down his edge.

In particular, his decision not to contest a high kick in game two, which then bounced opportunely for the Maroons, was widely condemned.

Blues coach Ricky Stuart made a tough call to axe the Fijian flyer, and it is difficult to deny Brett Morris was an outstanding replacement in the series decider.

Uate never says much at the best of times, and in this instance he insists he has ‘‘moved on’’ from his Origin disappointment.

But his performances in recent weeks have spoken for themselves.

The 24-year-old has always had freakish natural talent.

Now he has a point to prove. He is hungry.

Good luck to anyone who gets in the road of this lethal weapon in the weeks ahead.

Just ask premiers Manly, who had no answer to Uate’s power and pace at Hunter Stadium on Saturday night.

He scored Newcastle’s first and last tries in a 32-6 demolition and had another disallowed by the video referee that could easily have been awarded.

In the past two games, against Souths and Manly, Uate has scored four times.

He has been denied another three by the third official.

And it is not just the number of tries that Uate scores that attracts attention, it is the manner in which he scores them.

His opening effort against Manly came when he had a few inches of space, two defenders in his path, and 10metres to the line.

Like a missile, he lowered his body position and powered straight through the attempted tackles of Kieran Foran and Dean Whare.

They would have had more chance of stopping a runaway prime mover.

Then, with five minutes left in a one-sided match, Uate found himself in the clear 40m out and hit the throttle.

Fullback Whare had no hope as Uate turned him inside out with mesmerising footwork at high speed.

That took Uate’s try tally to the year to 12 from 15 games.

The suspicion is that he is merely warming up.

His NRL career record is now 64 tries from 83 games, at a remarkable 77.1per cent strike rate.

But in the past three seasons, he has been even more prolific, scoring 53 tries in 62 games at 85.4per cent.

To put that in context, Canterbury dynamo Ben Barba has scored 50 tries from 62 games over the same period.

And Australian rugby league’s greatest try poacher, Ken Irvine, scored 212 tries in a 236-game career (89.8per cent strike rate).

Even after Saturday’s stirring display, the Knights remain two wins adrift of the top eight with just seven games to play. They have a tough draw to negotiate, but while Uate is in such a mood, anything appears possible.

He is not just a finisher.

He is the prototype winger-front-rower, equally dangerous whether he is haring down the sideline or charging into the rucks after a kick return.

Having played for the past few seasons outside Wes Naiqama, Junior Sa’u and Keith Lulia, Uate has struck up an immediate combination with mid-season signing Dane Gagai.

Gagai’s ability to get outside his man, draw the winger and create an overlap for Uate with a flick pass on Saturday night evoked memories of Matt Gidley in his prime.

According to NRL Stats, Gagai missed eight of the 26 tackles he attempted against Manly, but remember he is only 21 and was playing in just his 11th NRL match.

As Knights coach Wayne Bennett noted when he recruited Gagai, he is a rare talent. Brisbane’s loss will be Newcastle’s gain.

On the other edge of the field, James McManus was, as always, the ultimate professional.

His two tries took him to 10 from 17 games this year, and most of them have come from Timana Tahu’s sweet passes.

Then consider that fullback Darius Boyd is back to his Test form and halves Tyrone Roberts and Jarrod Mullen outplayed their big-name Manly counterparts, Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans.

Newcastle’s forward pack worked as a unit, defended resolutely, and eventually dominated the battle up front.

Such performances have been few and far between this season, but if the Knights can maintain a level of consistency, they appear to be capable of sneaking into the top eight.

If they reach the play-offs, the presence of Uate suggests anything is possible.

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