Prop Suaia Matagi has been using his own prison experience to help youngsters at a young offenders’ institution get their lives back in order.
The 31-year-old New Zealander is one of a host of Super League players to volunteer their time at the Wetherby prison in a ground-breaking project run by the charity Rugby League Cares.
Matagi’s Huddersfield Giants team-mates Darnell McIntosh and Akuila Uate, along with Wakefield trio David Fifita, Reece Lyne and Pauli Pauli have spent the last seven weeks mentoring the youngsters in an Offload project that aims to help tackle depression and develop a positive mindset.
Matagi has been able to speak from his own experience of a rough upbringing. A high school drop-out, he was a full-blown alcoholic by 16 who became heavily involved in gang life. That resulted in an eight-year prison sentence for aggravated assault, later cut to three, but he survived and managed to turn his life around.
Matagi once shared his story on stage in a play Down Under and was happy to relate it to the 15-to-18-year-olds in Wetherby.
“One thing I’ve learned looking back is that everyone in life makes mistakes, “ he said.
“It’s like rugby league really. You make errors and it’s about not compounding the mistakes, it’s about learning from them and trying to win the game.
“We’re all going to get knocked down some time in our life, it’s about standing back up and going again. You have to show that resilience.”
Alongside Pauli and Huddersfield assistant coach Willie Poching, Matagi performed a Haka at the end of a ceremony in which former Arsenal and England footballer Tony Adams, who will take over as president of the Rugby Football League on July 24, presented certificates.
“It’s been good, “ Matagi said. “We’ve had a mentoring role where we take them under our wing and I’ve seen a change in the boys with their attitude and stuff like that.”
“When you get to know them, they’re really good kids. They’re just youngsters who have made bad decisions and mistakes and they’re willing to take a second chance.
“They can still have a bright future, you encourage them to believe there is a better path and that it’s not over when you get sent to prison.”
Wakefield assistant coach Stuart Dickens said: “The players have found the experience of mentoring the young people at Wetherby and building trusting relationships with them very rewarding and are keen to continue to provide what support they can.
“By sharing their own experiences and encouraging them to make better life choices, the players are making a positive impact upon the young people’s lives.”