Akuila Uate repays Smith's faith, with interest

BUOYANT: Rising Knights winger Akuila Uate during a team pool session this week.- Picture by Jonathan Carroll
BUOYANT: Rising Knights winger Akuila Uate during a team pool session this week.- Picture by Jonathan Carroll

TWELVE months ago this week, Brian Smith was plotting one of his trademark covert operations designed to catch the opposition unawares.

Then on a typically cold, miserable Saturday night at Toyota Park, the Newcastle Knights coach unleashed Akuila Uate against an unsuspecting Cronulla for the first game of what shapes as a long and illustrious NRL career.

Uate marked the occasion with a try, five tackle breaks and 101 metres in attack, but he also missed two tackles and conceded a try down his edge as the Knights lost 16-13.

The bulldozing winger has come a long way since July 19 last year.

He has now appeared in 17 NRL games, notching 11 tries, and is Newcastle's leading tryscorer with eight in 13 appearances this season.

The 21-year-old has strung together seven successive games in the top grade and crossed the stripe in each of Newcastle's past three outings.

Not forgetting his eye-catching efforts for Fiji during last year's World Cup before suffering a broken ankle in the semi-final against Australia.

And if Uate is already causing rival wingers insomnia, their real worry is that he is still serving his apprenticeship and might be several years off realising his true potential.

"He's no longer on his L-plates and has well and truly moved onto his Ps," Smith said.

'He's not the finished article, but you wouldn't expect a boy with his background in our game to be that yet.

"As long as he keeps working hard, he's got a lot of improvement to come and he can be a much better player yet."

Smith is now reaping the dividends of patiently nurturing Uate in seasons 2007 and 2008.

Tipped as a future superstar by no less a judge than Andrew Johns, it was effectively a case of when, not if, the 96-kilogram speedster would eventually graduate to the NRL.

Smith knew he had a special talent on his hands, but felt he was raw and neither mentally nor physically ready for the big step up.

With the benefit of hindsight, Uate appreciates that Smith made the right call in holding him back.

"I was still learning back then," Uate said.

"I wasn't in a hurry.

"That's how coaches are and I was just waiting for my turn to play first grade.

"I didn't think it was a bad idea he had. I wasn't angry about it or anything like that.

"I'm happy he made that decision because I'm learning more and I think now is the right time for me in first grade."

Smith said what has pleased him most about Uate's progress was his willingness to do the dirty work in Newcastle's red zone.

According to NRL Stats, of the wingers who have played 10 or more NRL games this season, only Brett Morris, Wendell Sailor, Manu Vatuvei and Taniela Tuiaki are averaging more metres per game than Uate (120.2m).

"We always knew that he's got that potential to score a 100-metre try and win you the game, or do something really spectacular," Smith said.

"But the way he keeps getting back there and working hard to bring the ball out through the middle when it's tough, he hasn't shirked any of that.

"That's how young players earn the respect of their senior teammates, I reckon."

Uate has formed a powerful partnership on Newcastle's left fringe with centre Junior Sau, who also made his first-grade debut midway through last season and shares a similar penchant for trampling would-be defenders.

"We're really close, me and Junior," Uate said.

"We're really good mates off the field, we joke around heaps and we usually room together on our trips away.

"If we make mistakes out on the field, we talk it over and work it out ourselves."

Having moved to Australia as a 15-year-old after being born and raised in the tiny village of Votua on Fiji's Coral Coast, Uate recently signed a four-year contract extension with the Knights.

He plans to start shopping for his first house at season's end, preferably "somewhere close to training".

On the field, he is similarly settled but still eager to expand his horizons.

"I'm really proud of where I am now, really happy," he said.

"But I think I'm still learning and still have a little way to go before I'm up there.

"Playing first grade is a big opportunity for me, but I have to keep working hard and learn more."