Manu Vatuvei looked to launch a career as a professional boxer after stepping away from rugby league. He tells Christopher Reive about the brain cyst that ruled boxing out as an option for him and how dancing filled the void.
Life after league has been a tough road for Manu Vatuvei.
During his time with the Warriors he was a cult hero; affectionately known as 'the Beast', Vatuvei cemented his place as one of the club's greatest players after more than a decade in the jersey.
But when he was released by the club to take up a deal with Salford in the English Super League in 2017, Vatuvei's career suffered a sharp decline when injuries saw his career in England cut short.
Returning to New Zealand after just eight games with Salford, Vatuvei tells the Herald he actively tried to avoid the sport.
"It's always been tough, I never watched a game when I came back from England, I never watched a game, and I never went to a game or anything.
"I was missing it and getting itchy feet all the time."
Looking to fill the void the game left in his life, Vatuvei returned to the workforce before looking to launch a career as a professional boxer.
With a number of bouts lined up, a medical screening before his debut against David 'Brown Buttabean' Letele found something that would put an abrupt halt to his career in the sport.
"I've got a cyst in my brain," he reveals to the Herald, "so that's been tough."
"[There were] no symptoms, no nothing … They found it then and tried to rule me out of the fight but I went on with it and came out good."
Vatuvei won his debut by knocking Letele out in the first round of the fight, but the other bouts he had lined up were cancelled because of the discovery.
The 33-year-old says he was told the cyst had likely been there for some time, including while he was still playing rugby league.
"Right now, I can't do any boxing. But with footy, they said because I must've had it a long time ago, I must have been all good playing. So I'm still deciding from there.
"Hopefully, I hear back from that soon and decide what my future holds."
With boxing ruled out, Vatuvei finally found a new passion to fill the void left by league in an unlikely form – ballroom dancing.
The offer to participate in the most recent season of Dancing with the Stars opened a new avenue to express himself and exert himself physically. It was something totally new, and he quickly embraced it - going on to win the competition.
"It was a tough challenge for myself and I've enjoyed it," he says.
"I got told I can't do boxing anymore. It's been tough, but then dancing came along and made it feel a little better so I'll just continue with that and see what the future holds for me."
Dancing has been a cathartic experience for Vatuvei, and he's been able to open himself up to rugby league again. This week he was working with the Mate Ma'a Tonga team as they prepared for their test against the Kiwis at Mt Smart Stadium on Saturday. Vatuvei played two tests for Tonga in 2017, adding to his 29 tests for the Kiwis between 2004 and 2017.
"I had to get over it somehow," he says of his return to the environment. "This was a good opportunity for myself to come in and get amongst the boys again and get that feeling again. It's hard, but I'm just enjoying it at the moment."
Despite having stayed away from the game for the best part of the past year, Vatuvei has not ruled out a return to the pitch. While his NRL career is likely capped at 226 appearances, in which he scored 152 tries, he says he would be open to returning to the game in reserves grade or perhaps even at the grassroots level.
However, his health is his first and foremost priority. While he says dancing has helped with his ailed knees and Achilles, he's not taking the cyst in his brain lightly.
"I haven't really announced my retirement or anything because I'm still in denial that I can still play. That's something I'm still trying to heal from.
"I've still got some medical things that I've got to look at. Right now my mind and my heart's telling me I can still play but my body's saying no so it's a constant battle at the moment."