Sione Mata’utia says becoming a father for the first time late last year at a time when his career was under a cloud following a series of concussions helped him get through a tumultuous period of uncertainty over his playing future.
Mata’utia will line up against Manly in the centres in the season opener on Friday night after getting the all-clear from specialists several weeks ago.
But not before he was ordered to sit out contact drills for three months during the pre-season after scans picked up abnormalities on his brain.
In his first interview since being stood down indefinitely by the Knights late last season following his fifth concussion in two seasons, Mata’utia revealed it was the support of his partner Hannah and his family and the birth of daughter Amiyah in early November that helped him get through it.
He also told the Newcastle Herald he wants to sign a long term deal and ultimately become a Knight for life but can understand the club’s caution with negotiations to re-sign him.
“The birth of my little girl – it kept me a bit grounded and in the moment at a time when I didn’t really know what the future held footy-wise,”he said.
“Hannah was just so supportive of me and my family as well so coming along when Amiyah did, even though she was an accident, was really a blessing in disguise.
“It helped take my mind off things.”
Mata’utia’s aggressive tackling technique under fatigue has been blamed for the spate of head-knocks he has received at NRL level.
But real concerns over his long-term health were raised after he received a further knock playing against Melbourne on August 19 last season – his fifth concussion in two seasons.
The 21-year-old back-rower was stood down from the Knights’ final two games and was forced to pull out of the Samoan side for the World Cup as he underwent a series of tests with a concussion specialist in Melbourne – tests he admits he did not want to have done.
“I’d done so many tests that I was just a bit over it,”he said.
“As it turned out, if they didn’t do the scans in Melbourne, they probably wouldn’t have found I did have a bit of a problem with little parts of the brain that weren’t working like they should be.
“Apparently, it wasn’t unusual for a scan showing someone recovering from concussion but it was still a bit of a worry.
“That’s when it was determined that I’d have to have three months off without any contact.”
Mata’utia, who got through the club’s two pre-season trials without any problems, said he is thankful the Knights insisted he undergo the stringent testing.
“As much as I didn’t want the scans done, it was good that I did and I can’t thank the club enough for always taking care of me,”he said.
“At the end of the day, they were just looking after my well-being.”
Mata’utia said he tried hard not to contemplate the worst case scenario while he waited to learn the fate of his playing future.
“Whatever way it was going to turn out, I had to accept it,”he said.
“I just told myself I had no choice then to roll with the punches and to be honest, I tried not to think about the worst case scenario and just take it day by day. It wasn’t anything that I could control.
“The hardest part was the waiting to find out because it seemed to drag on for so long and at the time, I was really hoping to re-sign and get something sorted with my contract.
“I just wanted to hurry up and find out if I could or couldn’t play.
“When I was finally given the good news, it was a huge weight off my shoulders. I was just happy and relieved. The big man upstairs was looking out for me.”
Asked about where his contract negotiations are up to, Mata’utia said he is hopeful things can be worked out with the Knights.
“I’d love to play my career here,”he said.
“It's one of those hard ones where not too many get to do it and I can only control so much.
"I'll do everything on my part to try and reach that goal but sometimes clubs just don't have plans for you to be here in the future.
"That's the way the business rolls so I can only try and be the best player and trainer and make it hard for them to let me go.
"In saying that, I'm confident I'll be staying and I'm confident the club want me here but it's up to them.
"I spoke to Darren [Mooney – head of football] last week and they are going through all the negotiations and hopefully we can get something done soon.
"I definitely want to stay and finish my career here for sure.”
Mata’utia, who was rumoured to be negotiating a potential new three-year deal last year, claims he is not disappointed talks were put on hold by the club’s new owner Wests because of his concussion history.
"I can understand the club's situation,”he said.
“It's like any business. If they are going to invest money in me, they want to make sure I'm going to be healthy and ready and be the player they want me to be. So I can understand it.
"That's why I'm not so disappointed it has taken so long and I guess if at the end of the day it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out and I’ll have to look at other options.
“Right now though, I just want to play. Bring on Manly.”