The selection of Saimone Taumoepeau for the All Blacks end of year tour in 2004 was, by modern standards, almost entirely random. Schooled in Tonga, Taumoepeau didn't even take up rugby until he reached his late teens and moved to New Zealand. He was 20 when he came and his motivation was not to win higher rugby honours, but to hold down regular work and play a bit of rugby while he did so.
At 103kg, he didn’t feel he was big enough to be taken seriously as an elite prop.
He was in his third season with Auckland's Marist club in 2004 and he began that season as barely a realistic prospect for Auckland in the NPC. But his explosive scrummaging caught the eye of Auckland coach Pat Lam, and when injuries struck, Taumoepeau suddenly found himself playing in the NPC.
He was holding down a full-time job at a freezing works and was on a pay-per-play contract. He worked the morning shift at Carter Holt Harvey and then legged it to training once he clocked off. It was a highly irregular scenario and one that made it hard in the extreme for Taumoepeau to prepare well and compete. Nevertheless he played superbly for Auckland and by mid-September was given a full-time provincial deal that allowed him to give up his job.
The truly ridiculous part came just six weeks later, when he was named in the All Blacks. The national selectors felt the Tongan-born prop had the skill set they were looking for. He was dynamic at the set piece and highly mobile around the field given his relative lack of bulk.
If there was an element of bemusement within the public, it was shared by Taumeopeau when he was named to start against Italy. “I'm so happy to make the All Blacks because I'm a Tongan,” he said. “I'm not a New Zealander so it's a bit hard for me. It will be my first time doing the haka so I'm working hard to be ready for that.
“Trainings are a lot harder with the All Blacks. The shoulders are a little tender after some of the hard training.”
Taumeopeau made his test debut in Rome, scoring a try with his first touch. It truly was the most remarkable ascension to national honours.