Toulouse’s Ahki hoping to take centre stage against perennial foes Munster

Experienced 30-year-old knows exactly what to expect as aristocrats of French rugby head for Thomond Park

Toulouse head coach Ugo Mola once said that “when Pita Ahki is fine, the whole three-quarter line is pretty good”.

He is the touchpaper for the fireworks around him, a facilitator with a sharp rugby brain and rock-hard shoulders, as those that stray into his channel will attest.

The bad news for Munster, who host the French club in their opening Heineken Champions Cup match at Thomond Park on Sunday, is that the New Zealand-born centre returned to action last weekend against Perpignan following knee surgery in September.

Ahki’s importance to the team is evident in his quiet, consistent excellence in a defined role that enables those around him. That should not be mistaken for someone who can’t prise open defences with natty footwork as opposing teams have discovered to their cost if they become fixated on some of his team-mates.


The 30-year-old provides a case study in perseverance. He played for Tonga and then New Zealand at under-20 level, bounced around from North Harbour to the Blues, Hurricanes and Waikato, while spending three years in the New Zealand Sevens set-up. His Super Rugby career was bedevilled by injuries limiting him to just 14 appearances in five seasons.

In 2017 Kieran Keane signed Ahki for Connacht, ostensibly as short-term cover for Bundee Aki whose Ireland career took off that November when he made his debut against Samoa. Ahki departed after five months, playing seven matches with three starts, to sign for Toulouse on the recommendation of his brother-in-law Luke McAlister.

It was to prove a shrewd decision on both sides with Ahki having helped Toulouse to a couple of French Top 14 titles and the club’s fifth Heineken Champions Cup success to date.

He is well-versed with Irish rugby, and not just from his time in Connacht, as in Sunday’s clash he will face a team that have become perennial foes, Munster, during his time in Toulouse colours.

He faced them in the European Round of 16 match in 2021, a game played with no spectators due to Covid-19 which the French side won 40-33 and in last season’s unforgettable quarter-final at the Aviva Stadium that was decided by penalty kicks, Toulouse again squeaking through.

Ahki said of the first encounter. “It was a bit weird because I had played there before with Connacht, and I remember the crowd was amazing. But the game in Dublin, I didn’t expect that many people to turn up because it’s obviously in Dublin. It was a sea of red, it was amazing.

“In Limerick, it will be a different beast heading there with a full crowd behind them because Munster in Munster is tough. Every game [against them] is hard, as you saw last season in the quarters when it went down to the wire, down to penalty kicks. I think it will be a bit of the same.”

He described the atmosphere that day at the Aviva Stadium as “special”. The following weekend Toulouse returned to face Leinster in a semi-final won by the Irish province. Ahki recalled: “You could just hear the crowd throughout the whole [Munster) game, like singing songs.

“My wife [Kayla] was in the stands for both the quarter-final [Munster] and semi-final [Leinster] and she said that the atmosphere in the quarter-final was a lot more energetic with the songs and stuff like that. I could definitely feel what the Munster team could feel.”

Ahki admitted he was stressed out watching the penalty shoot-out on the mistaken premise that he might have to participate.

“I was a bit nervous because under the old rules they have to go through the team [to take the penalties if it is still tied after five] until you miss one.

“I thought I had to get ready to kick a penalty but that wasn’t the case.”

So, would he have fancied taking one?

“Right in front [of the posts] I would but not from the sides. That sort of pressure was different.”

Toulouse lead the French Top 14 with eight wins and a draw from 12 games successfully managing the absence of a glut of internationals including new Italian star Ange Capuozzo, who, Ahki says ,reminds him of Cheslin Kolbe. He added that there was a responsibility among senior players to help the younger ones acclimatise and to help bring them to the standards expected at the club.

“They [Toulouse squad] train really hard on how they want to play. It’s real intense training, trying to keep the ball alive.”

Toulouse have always committed wholeheartedly to the European tournament and that will be evident again on Sunday.

“Yeah, when we lost last season in the semis, it hurt. Leinster is Leinster, they’re a big European side, have a lot of internationals, and they know how to play finals footy.

“Toulouse takes this competition seriously, the management takes it seriously, and we want to put our best foot forward.”

He still stays in touch with some of his former Connacht team-mates, including Niyi Adeolokun, Ultan Dillane at La Rochelle and Aki. There’s talk about hooking up to see a Chris Brown concert in Amsterdam but there is that small matter of a game in Limerick.

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer