NRL great and international rugby league star Manu Vatuvei faces life in prison after pleading guilty to importing methamphetamine.
Retired rugby star Manu Vatuvei has been found guilty of importing methamphetamine.
The former Warriors player, 35, admitted the crime when he appeared with his lawyer on Wednesday in a largely empty courtroom in Manukau, an area of Auckland in New Zealand’s North Island.
The charge carries a maximum sentence of life. Vatuvei will be sentenced in December.
Judge Jonathan Moses allowed Vatuvei to remain out on bail, with strict curfew restrictions, until then.
The plea nearly ends a legal saga spanning nearly two years, including 18 months in which Vatuvei was identified only as “one of the biggest names in New Zealand sport” due to his ultimately failed battle for name suppression.
Vatuvei – mentioned in court documents with his full name, Manu Mapuhola Mafi-Vatuvei – was one of four people arrested in 2019 after a joint investigation with the police and customs authorities of Manukau Province into the supply of methamphetamine.
He was charged with importing, possessing and supplying methamphetamine in September, October and November of that year. Prosecutors plan to drop the additional charges with the sentencing in lieu of Wednesday’s plea for the representative.
Vatuvei kept his name hushed from November 2019 to May 2021, when he identified himself as a suspect in a video post on Instagram.
The suppression of the name was initially ordered to protect an ongoing police investigation, but by November 2020 – a year into the case – prosecutors stopped looking for it. Vatuvei, however, tried to pass the order to suppress.
His lawyer argued before the District Court and later the High Court that the rugby star would face extreme hardship if he were named and that his rights to a fair trial would be jeopardized.
But his application was rejected after Crown Prosecutor Jessica Pridgeon claimed that fame in itself did not mean that the defendant would suffer extreme hardship.
“In 2019, I was charged with importation, possession and supply of methamphetamine,” Vatuvei said in his social media post the night before his crackdown was set to end.
“All these charges are charges and I will fight for these charges against my innocence. I know there will be a lot of questions that want answers, but I’ve been advised by my legal team that that’s all I can talk about.”
Vatuvei was one of four co-defendants in the case, including his brother.
On September 14, Lopini Lautau Mafi, 48, also pleaded guilty to a representative charge of importing methamphetamine. After the plea, he was taken back into custody by Judge Moses. The siblings will be sentenced at the same hearing in December.
Vatuvei and co-defendant Jayden Zohab Ashik, 28, whose case is still pending, were in court this month.
Affectionately referred to as “The Beast” by fans, Vatuvei played more than 200 games in the NRL for the Warriors from 2004 to 2017 – and was the team’s top scorer for many of those seasons – before entering his final year of professional rugby competition. spent in Europe with the Salford Red Devils.
During the same time, he represented New Zealand in 29 Test matches, including the team’s triumphant 2008 World Cup, in which he set a tournament record for the most attempts in a single match by a New Zealand player. As a result, he was named International Winger of the Year. He also represented Tonga twice in 2017.
In 2018, Vatuvei fought as an undercard to Joseph Parker in his first and only professional boxing match, but he hung up on the gloves after discovering a brain cyst.
Then he switched to dancing and won the New Zealand edition of reality TV series Dancing with the stars in June 2019, just months before his arrest.
Vatuvei and lawyer Vivienne Feyen both wore masks when they addressed the judge in Manukau court on Wednesday. The prosecutor and multiple media outlets attended via an audio-video link, part of the court’s ongoing Covid-19 safety protocol.
This story first appeared on the NZ Herald and was reproduced with permission