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Matt Utai Bulldogs Tribute

Matt Utai's career at the Bulldogs ended last Sunday with a club record 5th premiership across the grades, but he leaves the Bulldogs with many fine memories and outstanding tries that only Utai could score.
Matt Utai Bulldogs Tribute
by NRL

Matt Utai's career at the Bulldogs ended last Sunday with a club record 5th premiership across the grades, but he leaves the Bulldogs with many fine memories and outstanding tries that only Utai could score.

Utai only played five games in the top grade this season as coach Kevin Moore opted for the younger and taller Bryson Goodwin to take his place on the left wing.

Despite the disappointment Utai went back to the NSW Cup and gave his all for the Terry Lamb coached Bankstown City outfit and was one of the key players in their premiership success.

The success of Lamb's side last Sunday created Utai a unique piece of Canterbury history as he became the only player to win five premierships across the grades - one ahead of 1980's legends Steve Folkes and Steve Mortimer.

Utai moved to New Zealand in the early 1990's and played his junior league football in Australia with the Berala Bears. Utai came through the development squads and was graded in 1999 at the age of 18. Utai played 10 matches in the backend of the season and took part in the Jersey Flegg premiership success, which was Kevin Moore's first title as a coach in his first year as a graded coach.

In 2000, Utai started the year in Jersey Flegg, but his form warranted promotion to the Reserve Grade side and he played in 16 matches including scoring two tries in the Grand Final victory against Penrith where he played in the centres under the coaching of Lamb.

There were calls for the 19-year-old Utai to be promoted into a slow and aging first grade side in 2000, but then coach Steve Folkes resisted the calls and believed Utai needed more time to develop.

Moore's decision to drop Utai this year wasn't the first time he has wielded the axe on the match-winning winger and in 2001 when Moore was promoted to first grade he dropped Utai back to the Jersey Flegg where he won his third successive premiership in Ricky Stuart's only year as a coach at the Bulldogs.

Utai's career when backwards in 2001, but it took a mighty leap forward when out of no where Folkes promoted him to the NRL side for the round 4 clash against South Sydney at the SFS. Gavin Lester started the season in the top grade along with Hazem El Masri on the flanks, but an injury in round 3 saw Folkes searching for a replacement and with Brett Howland and Shane Marteene also injured Folkes finally opted to give Utai a chance not long before his 21st birthday.

The match will be remembered as Nigel Vagana's night as he equalled Edgar Newham's club record of five tries in the one first grade match, but Utai impressed many people with his trademark hit ups and runs from dummy half. Utai remained a permanent fixture in the NRL side for the next five seasons except for a short period in 2004 when he lost his spot with Jamaal Lolesi preferred on the left wing.

In his debut NRL season Utai played 21 matches missing only the first three rounds and he scored 13 tries. His form was impressive enough to win the prestigious Peter Moore Dally M Rookie of the Year award. He was the second player to do so after Braith Anasta in 2001 and the third Bulldogs player overall with Jamal Idris winning the award this year.

One of Utai's finest moments came in 2003 when the Bulldogs met the Roosters in one of the ultimate grudge matches. The Roosters took advantage of the Bulldogs not being in the 2002 finals and both sides had a point to prove in a game for the ages. With the scores locked up at 26-all Brent Sherwin opted for the big play and spun the ball wide to Utai where he surged through several Roosters defenders for one of the great individual tries simply known as the 'Utai Slam'.

After losing his spot for seven weeks in 2004 following a slow start to the season due to injuries Utai found his best form heading into the matches that mattered with the exception of one game. The Cowboys exposed Utai's weakness under the high ball where Matt Sing scored three tries against him, but Utai bounced back and in the Grand Final against the Roosters it was his 60m run down the left wing that got the Bulldogs going. Utai scored two trademark tries that only Utai could score to keep the Bulldogs in the match and eventually El Masri scored to put the Bulldogs in front.

The 2004 success was Utai's 4th title across the grades, but after 2005 where he was in a minority of players that managed to stay fit that season injuries started to play havoc with his career as his crash and bang style started to take toll on his body. He missed ten games in 2006 due to injuries and suspension when he was sent-off by Paul Simpkins for a classic coat-hanger tackle against the Wests Tigers.

Utai barely got on the field in 2007 where he just played four matches in the top grade including both semi finals the Bulldogs contested that year.

Injuries restricted Utai to just half the season in 2008 and this year was regaining his fitness when Moore decided it was time to split up the long serving El Masri/Utai wing combination.

Utai was used as an interchange utility for three matches against Cronulla, Souths and Parramatta, but an injury in the latter game sidelined him for three weeks and he wasn't recalled to the NRL side until injuries and origin selections opened the door for many Bankstown City regulars to play in the NRL. Utai retained his spot for another week with Goodwin suspended and he had a fine match against the Titans, but after that the door on his NRL career at the Bulldogs was closed.

In the lead up to the Grand Final last Sunday tragedy struck the Utai family with his 84-year-old grandmother Taua'avaga Tupuola one of the victims in the Samoan tsunami that ripped apart lives and villages.

A grieving Utai looked at Lamb in the eye and said, "I'm going to play."

Lamb said following the NSW Cup victory, "I didn't speak to him at all about it. He came up to me and said 'I'm going to play'.

"He wanted to keep his mind on other things. He can't do anything over there at this stage but he's going over there soon.

"Mentally he's unbelievable. His first half was unbelievable the way he took the ball forward."

The grand final was the last for Utai at the Bulldogs and he took out Lamb's Coaches Award for his performance and no doubt proving to be an inspiration to his team-mates.

Utai's career is at the crossroads with England and retirement the likely two options at this stage.

Lamb added, "He's got to get over what happened last week first so we'll see what happens.

"He's great, he's fantastic. I've known him since he's been at the club, over 10 years. He's a very strong man, strong willed, and he's a good friend."

Utai unfortunately didn't get the send-off or farewell that he deserved for his fantastic service and loyalty to the Bulldogs over the last 11 seasons that yielded 215 club games, 119 tries, 476 points and a record five premierships.

Utai will go down as one of the best and most dynamic match-winning wingers the Bulldogs have produced and deserves to be ranked alongside El Masri, Newham, Chris Anderson, John Rhodes, Steve Gearin, Steve O'Brien and Peter Mortimer as the best flankers to have played for Canterbury.

---------- asked for the opinions of supporters from website forums/blogs League Unlimited, Bulldogs Debate Page, Rleague Grandstand and also the authors personal Facebook blog.

League Unlimited
Timmah: Matt was instrumental along with Baa in getting the Bulls to hold aloft the NSW Cup this year, and in his performances in first grade since his debut in 2002, he always gave 100% IMO, even when shifted to utility hooker in the debacle of 2008. And who'll ever forget that awesome try against the Roosters in 2003? To boot, he was always a professional clubman. During both the 2004 premiership lap of honour and this years NSW Cup lap of honour, I distinctly remember he made sure he shook everyone's hand as he walked around. Thanks for the memories mate - all the best for whatever lies ahead.

Bulldog Force: He helped us win the Grand Final in 2004. His tries were awesome. first one he caught a pass from Ryan and bolted to the line, no one caught him. Second try he had to battle the attention of 3 players to stay in the field of play and put the ball down, and he did just that. He's been a gun player. All the best in your future Matty, and thanks for your years of service to the club.

Ridders: Will definitely miss the pocket rocket. Having Utai was like having an extra forward, considering the amount of metres he could make.

Packy: Regardless of form or perceived deficiencies, this guy is a champ. Watching that try 2003 try against the Roosters gave me goose bumps. Not many could have scored that and none could have done it so easily. Great pass from Sherwin too!

Whoosh: Great service for the Doggies, Matty Utai. Well done and good lcuk in the future!

Thank you to Tim Costello and Steven Williams for organising the Utai tributes from League Unlimited.

Bulldogs Debate Page
Annav3: Matt Utai was a fantastic player and a great club man. Loved watching his powerful runs from dummy half, you could sense the fear in the opposition. Good luck to Matt on his future endeavours and we thank him for the joy that he has brought to us over the years.

Rowdy12: The Pocket Rocket who will never be forgotten, especially the try in the 2004 grand final I know I'll never forget Matty Utai!

Old Dog: I still believe it was the Utai run straight down the side line where he beat almost all the rorters team was the spark that ignited the Dogs in this game and goddamn it was great of him to score in the corner where we were sitting. And the Utai Slam.....

JLL: Thank you for all your great work at Canterbury. You have brought plenty of cheer to all fans in Blue & White. All the best Matt. You are a true Bulldog.

Doggfather: We'll miss you Matty! An absolute legend of the Bulldogs. Will never forget that try versus the Roosters in 2003 and the double in the 2004 grand final.

Brisdog: I think its pretty safe to say that league highlight reels for the next 25 years will consist of atleast one Matt Utai super try. The famous 'slam' try against the Roosters and the premiership winning double against the same club in 2004 are just two outstanding examples. Nobody caught the fans attention as much as Utai when he was in full flight and the effort and loyalty he has shown the Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs club over many seasons will remain with us forever.

Thank you to Anna Vergos for compiling the best Utai tributes from the BDP.

Grandstand Forum
Anastabation: Matt Utai was the best winger in the world in 2003. His try against the roosters in the first match up between the sides after the 2002 scandal was like a semi final win. In 2004 he really stepped up when it mattered to score two tries in the gf. He had a great try scoring strike rate and was a great clubman.

Sickflip: I remember many of his length of the field tries especially the one he did against Souths in 2003, also who cannot forget his buzzy beater against Easts in that same year, he had a good combination of speed power and agility.

Janus: Powerful winger very close to the line and deceptively quick in his earlier days. I doubt too many wingers would have been able to score his 2nd try in the '04 GF. My condolences with regard to his grandmother and i wish him the best in the future. I will never forget his match-winner against the Roosters in '03... scores tied, first meeting between the two since the salary cap scandal and expulsion in '02, dying seconds and Sherwin throws the ball wide to Utai who beat 3-4 players to score.

Topdog: That try against the Roosters in on the death where he bulldozed over several players in 03. I will miss the little bugger. I still found myself cheering for he's powerful runs in the NSW Cup GF.

BDGS23: What a fantastic player sad to see him go. Was vital in a lot of games for the dogs and will be missed. Last year we had wingers of El Masri and Utai this year they both leave. Sad.

ChiaPete: What a gritty player, just head down and charge whenever he had a remote sniff at a try. Great reliever for the forwards coming off our own line and some magic dummy half work. Completely different style of winger to where the clubs is heading with our 2 and 5. U-TAI AND STOP HIM!!

Rambo: He was a great player and will be missed.

CBB: What a fantastic player he will be missed badly.

Laurie dale (Warriors fan): Best of luck to him. Loved his powerful runs for the Doggies and the Kiwis.

The Dell (Broncos fan): He's always been one of my favourite players. It's just fantastic to watch him with the ball. I was very sad when he faded into obscurity.

Author's Facebook Page
Joanna: He's a true champion.

Ian: One of my favourite Bulldogs ever.

Anthony: Would have been good if they had organised a presentation for him after the game.

Youssef: Utai was one of my favourite players. I loved how he ran the ball and just pumped the legs. Not happy he won't be at the Bulldogs anymore.

Di Di (Roosters fan): Hahahaha Thanks for 2004?. NOT


DOB: 25 May 1981
Junior Club: Berala Bears

Graded: 1999
Games: 215
Tries: 119 (3rd Highest)
Points: 476 (10th Highest)

NRL Debut: 2002
Games: 127
Tries: 71 (7th Highest)
Points: 284 (12th Highest)

Tests (NZ): 4 - 2002-05
World Cup (Samoa): 3 - 2008

- Peter Moore Dally M Rookie of the Year 2002
- Scored 21 Tries in 2003
- Won a Bulldogs club record five premierships (1999-3, 2000-2, 2001-3, 2004-1, 2009-2)
- One of two Canterbury players to score two tries in a First Grade Grand Final in 2004 (Joe Gartner in 1938 the first player)

Utai pictured with a loyal Bulldogs supporter at the League Club following a game earlier this year

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