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Eels utility back Will Smith at Don Dale Detention Centre in Darwin.

Eels back rower Manu Ma'u walks through the steel doors of Darwin's Don Dale Juvenile Detention Centre and a host of unhappy memories come flooding back.

He and teammates Will Smith and Michael Jennings went to spend an hour with boys aged between 10 and 17 while in the Northern Territory as part of the build-up to Saturday night's round 15 match against the Raiders at TIO Stadium.

But Ma'u is familiar with having his freedom taken from him.

He spent time in juvenile detention in Auckland and when he was 18 he was jailed for 22 months on assault charges after two rival gangs clashed.

However, the New Zealand and Tonga international has since turned his life around. That includes having spent the last five years playing in the NRL for the Eels.

Still, he remembers the loneliness and despair of not too long ago.

Eels v Raiders - Round 15

"It’s touchy," he said of the memories these sorts of visits evoke.

"I'm all past that now. It's all good to come back and see the youth. Hopefully, it can help them out, they can get out.

"I spoke to one of them and he actually gets out next week. I hope he doesn't get back in.

"I just spoke to him [told him] he has a good future, he's still young. He's only 15. 'Get out and don't come back in' I said to him."

Smith had similar feelings of trepidation before walking into the centre.

"I love visiting but at the same time I dread going there in a way," Smith said.

Will Smith, Michael Jennings and Manu Ma'u during the Eels trip to Darwin.
Will Smith, Michael Jennings and Manu Ma'u during the Eels trip to Darwin. ©

"I almost feel guilty knowing that I can walk out of there at any time. They all have their own reasons for being there. I just hope it's not too long.

"I like to spend time with them. It's very different to the kids at schools that we visit. But it's good to come here and just hang with them for a bit," Smith said.

The players did some passing and defensive drills and also had a quick game of touch footy.

Jennings had his left knee in a brace so was restricted to offering encouragement from the sidelines. He did create a stir by announcing he was a former NSW Origin player, when there was a young Queensland supporter among the 11 detainees.

Ma'u knows the value of these sort of visits.

"It probably means a lot," he said. "When I was young inside there, seeing other people come in, like family, it means a lot.

"It brings back memories though, walking through.

"Once the gates open, you walk in and see the boys. It’s an eye opener now. I’ve got three kids. I feel for them."

One of the young inmates, who had an electronic tracker on his right ankle, is allowed day release on weekend to play rugby union with a local Darwin club.

"The one who plays footy, the one with the ankle bracelet, he was asking me about footy," Ma'u said.

"I told him to chase his dream, there’s nothing stopping him."

Acknowledgement of Country

Parramatta Eels respect and honour the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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