French tar­get All Blacks’ weak­ness

From un­healthy and over­weight non-player to All Black prop in just over three years

Weekend Herald - - Front Page - Gre­gor Paul

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.”

Karl Tu’inukuafe

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.