Laid-back until it's time for the angry hat
The Kiwi tighthead John Afoa, a World Cup winner last November, has been a huge ingredient in Ulster’s Heineken Cup progress since his arrival in the province, writes
JOHN AFOA has left the Ulster media day at Newforge to collect his son, Mateo, from school, whereupon after entreaties from their press officer, he returns with Mateo in tow for one more interview. Certainly, as World Cup winners go, there are few airs and graces about him. Wearing sandals and shorts, and that trademark beard, what you see with Afoa is what you get.
A chilled, smiling lad, he and his wife (Theresa) and two young kids Mateo and his sister Chloe have settled in seamlessly in their new environs. The one-time opponent of Isa Nacewa from their school-playing days, and subsequent Auckland Blues team-mates, Nacewa was one of those who encouraged him to make the move, and they have remained in regular contact since Afoa joined Ulster in early December.
“I was talking to Isa earlier in the week and I told him it was time for him to stop being greedy, and share those medals around,” smiles Afoa with a surprisingly soft voice.
Still only 28, Afoa was impressed by Ulster’s ambition as he sought a new challenge after winning a World Cup, but he also likes the profile of the squad, especially having so many fellow dads with young families.
“I don’t want to go to a club with plenty of 21-year-olds that are out every weekend. I’ve done all that,” he says with a broad smile. “I don’t need it in my life at the moment, and hopefully it makes it easier for my wife to settle.”
Whereas Nacewa is of Fijian extraction, Afoa’s dad (Sam) is Samoan and married to a Kiwi girl, Shirley, and similarly both were introduced to the game at five in their local clubs by their rugby-playing fathers. Afoa’s was Ardmore Marist.
“I was there every week, watching my dad play. It was all about the community. You played for your local community, your local club. Friends and family are there, it’s barbecues, kids running around ’til the sun goes down.” Unbeknown to Mateo, sitting quietly if distractedly beside him, Afoa has already lined up a couple of prospective clubs for his boy.
The Samoan blood gave Afoa a natural strength and ability to play rugby. “I think I got the best of both worlds. I’m very fortunate to get my dad’s genes but to be brought up in New Zealand and have the chance to be educated in good schools and go through a good rugby system like the NZRU. They put a lot of investment in their underage rugby.”
He was always a prop. “I don’t think there’s anything that draws you to being a prop, it’s just body type. They take one look at you, throw you in there and you just learn to love it. It’s a real specialist position, it comes with its challenges and it’s very rewarding. You can play for a long time if you get your things right.”
Afoa attended St Kents (St Kentigern College) a renowned rugby playing school, playing alongside Jerome Kaino and Joe Rokocoko, which seems unfair and must have seemed particularly unfair on their opponents.
On foot of this he made the Auckland 16s and from there New Zealand’s youngest underage national side, their under-16s, playing all the way through, including the schools’ side under coach Joe Schmidt.
He and Kaino were part of a New Zealand under-21 team which won the 2004 Junior World Cup, in the final beating an Irish side containing Ulster tighthead Declan Fitzpatrick, Jamie Heaslip, Tommy Bowe and others. “I’ll be honest, we couldn’t believe it when Ireland beat Australia in the semi-finals. It seems like such a long time ago, and now it’s great being here with Deccie.”
Subsequently a bench player with the Auckland Blues in ’04, the departure of Kees Meeuws to France prompted what Afoa regards as his breakthrough year in ’05. He started every game for the Blues, played for Auckland against the Lions, and was called up to the All Blacks squad the next day, eventually making his debut when New Zealand beat Ireland (in yet another connection, Rory Best also made his debut that day).
A squad member in the World Cup, he carries indelible memories of the party and collective sense of national relief. But he wasn’t even on the bench in the final, and with the end of a World Cup cycle, Afoa says he faced a crossroads.
“I wasn’t getting the game time I would have liked with the ABs and I was happy I got my century with the Blues, so a move was on the cards.”
Afoa’s arrival in Ravenhill put Ulster in the eye of a storm when Steve Tew, the NZRU chief executive, bemoaned: “John Afoa, an experienced and established All Black, got a very lucrative contract to play in Ireland and secure his future. We do not begrudge him that – he has earned the right to make that decision – but at a time when we are all struggling to make ends meet, here is an Irish province, in conjunction with its union, spending what we consider to be over the top for a player and that impacts on the market.”
The fall-out from these comments annoyed and amused Ulster, not least because they claimed they signed their World Cup-winning tighthead for less than they were paying the departing BJ Botha. In any event, whatever he’s been paid, he’s been worth it.
“He’s a smashing rugby player,” said Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin during the week. “What he’s brought for us is a scrummaging presence, but also his influence around the pitch is immense, in defence and attack. He’s a superb ball carrier, and you know Declan Fitzpatrick did amazingly in the semi-final, and Adam Mackin as well. But to have him back gives us a huge lift.
“He goes about his job very quietly, but he’s a huge influence over the team. I think the key thing about him as well that I would say is that the influence he has had over our set scrum and our young props in the squad has been amazing.”
On the field, there’s been no disguising Afoa’s impact, least of all in terms of results. In the 16 games he has played since his arrival, Ulster have won 14. In the seven games without him since he has joined, Ulster have lost six, the one win coming in the Heineken Cup semi-final against Edinburgh at the Aviva Stadium.
Afoa is a strong scrummager, if not an especially destructive one, but at 28 is still very much in his prime. As he showed in that quarter-final win away to Munster, not only does no occasion faze this World Cup winner, his mobility, carrying and especially his tackling around the pitch are extraordinary for a prop. It was this which prompted Mike Ross to describe Afoa, by way of a compliment, as “a disgrace to the frontrow union”.
Within weeks of his arrival though, Afoa found himself in the eye of another storm when the IRFU proposed that Leinster, Munster and Ulster’s separate quintet of five non-Irish eligible players should be position specific, thereby ensuring two Irish qualified players occupied two out of every three positions on each Heineken Cup weekend.
Given Afoa and Botha currently hold down the Ulster and Munster tighthead slots, this endangered his long-term prospects here. But even more threatening was the Union announcement that foreign players could not be re-signed to new contracts after their original deals, which directly placed a question over Afoa’s long-term prospects or remaining with Ulster.
You put this to him and his answer is sanguine yet rational, and clearly betrays a degree of concern. “We’re here to help out and do what we can but it makes it tough when it first came out because this is our livelihood and our job, and it gives you a lot of uncertainty. We sort of thought we would come up here and do another two years before this new proposal, which puts things up in the air. We’ll just have to wait and see what really happens, and if it goes through my time in Ulster could be cut short.”
Clearly, that thought already saddens him. Not every (NIE) non-Irish Eligible player, is a gun for hire. “Our kids are in school and I don’t really want to think about packing up and going to France or somewhere else for another two. It’s hard enough to do it once but to do it a few more times, I think it would put a lot of players off coming up this way, and I think they’ll just stay in New Zealand, South Africa or Australia, or go to France or England.”
Ideally, Afoa wants to leave a legacy here. “It’s a long-term thing. It’s never just about playing and going home, and not interacting. It’s about being involved in the community, and the work that Johann (Muller) and Ruan (Pienaar) have been doing has been massive. And people have enjoyed it and looked up to them. They’re not just doing it for their rugby, they’re doing it for their livelihoods and for their families to feel more settled. It’s a big lifestyle change and it’s been really good for us, and hopefully we can stay longer than two years.”
Were his time here definitely confined to two years, and had he known beforehand, Afoa admits he might have come on his own. But he’s looking forward to the prospect of a summer off-season and a few trips with the family.
There’s a little bit of a working weekend in London first. Hugely disappointed to have been suspended for four weeks since the quarter-final for a tip tackle, out of character and you sense, in his eyes stigmatised, he’ll be straining at the leash come 5pm today.
“It’s another challenge. It’s different from international rugby. It’s your club and you play for your club all of your life, some of these guys. So it’s a big deal, and to play a team down the road, like Leinster, who are your rivals and who you’ve got to live next to for so many years is a big thing. Fingers crossed, it’s only a starter, and we can just do it year after year and really stamp Ulster amongst the top teams.”
Unsurprisingly, he is not inclined to become too nervous or worked up in the build-up toward games.
“Through Monday to Friday, you’re a rugby player and then you’re a dad, and you’re a cleaner in your house, and you’re picking up toys until nine at night,” he says in that mild-mannered, smiling way of his. “But as it gets close, and after the warm-up, you’ve got to put on your angry hat and you gotta go out there and do your job.”
“It’s a big deal, and to play a team down the road, like Leinster, who are your rivals and who you’ve got to live next to for so many years is a big thing. Fingers crossed, it’s only a starter, and we can do it year after year and stamp Ulster amongst the top teams