French target All Blacks’ weakness
From unhealthy and overweight non-player to All Black prop in just over three years
There hasn’t been an All Blacks selection quite like that of Karl Tu’inukuafe. Not in the professional era at least. Maybe not ever. His is surely the most remarkable story of the past 22 years? There have been a few others plucked from nowhere over the years and plonked into the All Blacks.
Isaia Toeava was a 19-year-old who barely anyone had heard of or seen play when he was picked by the All Blacks in 2005.
But Toeava had been an age-grade star and was destined for the big stage. The All Blacks just fast-tracked his journey there.
He was picked along with Jason Eaton that year — another seemingly random choice as the big lock had been shuffling around with Taranaki to no devastating effect up until then.
At 2.04m and 115kg and with natural pace and agility, Eaton wasn’t as random a selection as he looked, though.
It was more a case that the All Blacks coaches, by looking a little wider, had found what the system had missed.
Saimone Taumoepeau would be the only story comparable with Tu’inukuafe’s. He began the 2004 provincial season on a part-time contract with Auckland, having to find time to train between shifts at a freezing works.
A few months later and he made his test debut for the All Blacks against Italy.
Taumoepeau’s rapid elevation from obscurity to the national stage was always going to be hard to trump but Tu’inukuafe has done it.
His is a ridiculous tale of human spirit triumphing against adversity — albeit self-inflicted adversity — fuelled by astonishing luck.
Tonight at Eden Park in Auckland against France, the story won’t end, but it will have another incredible chapter when the 25-year-old wins his first test cap.
And he trumps Taumoepeau for a number of reasons. Four years ago, Tu’inukuafe was staring death in the face.
It was maybe not imminent but without some kind of significant change in lifestyle, he probably didn’t have long before tragedy struck.
He was pushing 175kg at the tail end of 2014 and he complained to his doctor of pain in his legs.
The doctor made it clear the pain wasn’t going to go away if Tu’inukuafe continued to put on weight the way he was.
He’d taken a mostly sedentary security job and given up with the rugby.
He’d been in the Wesley First XV — playing alongside the man who will be wearing the French No 3 jersey tomorrow night, Atonio Uini — but work and life had got in the way of rugby.
“I think it was 2014 and I was complaining about a bit of pain in my legs and the doctor explained all the bad health decisions I was making,” says Tu’inukuafe.
“My eating was leading towards a heart attack or whatever. When he told me to lose weight, the easiest way was to play rugby with my brothers and family.
“I would rather do it with them on the field rather than try to do it on my own. That made it easier.”
He had a good boss who allowed him to balance his job with sport and the weight came off.
The fact he saved his own life by reconnecting with rugby is remarkable enough on its own.
But the story continued when he won a contract to play with Jerry Collins’ old club in France, Narbonne.
That toughened him up and won him a place with the North Harbour side last year.
Again, if that had been the end of his journey, it was still a remarkable turnaround.
But the past three months have been beyond believable. The Chiefs were hit with an endless run of injuries at prop and by March, they had to scour the country for replacements.
They knew a little bit about Tu’inukuafe and called him in. They had no choice really and the big man, slimmed down to 135kg, made his debut against the Blues at Eden Park.
Being chucked in at the deep end worked — he swam and the All Blacks, having no idea who he was, suddenly found him quite compelling viewing.
And when Wyatt Crockett retired, Kane Hames couldn’t shake his concussion and Tim Perry damaged his hamstring, the call went out to Tu’inukuafe to join the squad.
“I had never heard of him before he got to the Chiefs and I don’t think the Chiefs had either until they had to go and find him,” said All Blacks coach Steve Hansen.
“When I say I hadn’t heard of him, I mean he obviously wasn’t someone who was sitting on top of our radar.
“We knew he had played rugby before and we knew a little about him but he wasn’t someone whom we said, ‘let’s keep a big eye on this guy because he is going to be the future’.
“His future was accelerated by the misfortune of others and he has taken the opportunity. Once he came in there, he quickly caught everyone’s eye because he has slotted in and that Chiefs scrum is strong and he’s a big part of it.”
What truly makes Tu’inukuafe’s rise from nowhere to capped All Black so different is not just his recovery from a health perspective but that it has come in the meticulous age of talent identification.
Everyone tries to pretend the door to stardom is never shut and that those who miss the age-grade teams or academy programmes can always find a way into Super Rugby.
These days, it is not really quite true and most of the current All Blacks squad were identified as possible or probable All Blacks years ago.
These days, hardly anyone makes the elite ranks from an alternative pathway and it is quite incredible that Tu’inukuafe could start 2018 with the All Blacks selectors not knowing of his existence and yet make it on to the bench tomorrow night.
“For anyone who is out there and who has aspirations to be an All Black, says Hansen, “and hasn’t been a Super Academy player or an under-20 player, it is a clear message that you can still make it if you still have that dream, that desire and the work ethic to make it.”