John Afoa returns to New Zealand for birth of his third child

Ulster tighthead prop seems to be cutting it fine for Heineken Cup quarter-final tie on April 5th


Ulster tighthead prop John Afoa will miss this weekend’s Rabo PRO12 Irish head-to-head against Leinster in the RDS. The World Cup-winning All Black has returned to New Zealand to be with his wife who is giving birth to their third child. This is the second time this year Afoa has returned home. He last went back to New Zealand in January, where he turned up to train with former All Black John Kirwan, who is coach at his old club the Auckland Blues.

Reports in New Zealand media at the end of January said that the “burly tighthead has a third child on the way and is keen to return to these shores to be closer to family in what would be a major boost to the All Blacks frontrow stocks heading towards the World Cup defence in 2015”.

Ulster coach Mark Anscombe said yesterday that while hid player would not be available this weekend for his team’s trip to Dublin, he would be returning to play against Saracens in Twickenham the following weekend in their more important Heineken Cup quarterfinal. “His wife is having a baby. He will be back next week. I think she is having the baby early next week,” said Anscombe yesterday.

Given the multiple time zone differences between New Zealand and Belfast, that time frame seems to be cutting it pretty fine for Ulster’s biggest match of the season.

Fly directly
Depending on what day the baby is delivered Afoa will then fly directly from New Zealand and meet up with his Ulster team-mates in time for the April 5th game.

Afoa, however, made the same trip in January and when he arrived back in Belfast was thrown into a 40-minute hit out against Scarlets in a PRO12 match. It seemed hardly coincidental that Ulster’s second-half revival against the Scarlets began to gain momentum once the powerfully destructive Kiwi put his shoulder to the wheel.

As it stands, Afoa will not have scrummed down alongside hooker Rory Best in a competitive match since last year when they played against Castres in the Heineken Cup pool stages. Best was subsequently tied up with Declan Kidney and the Six Nations Championship.

The 29-year-old, who has played 36 times for New Zealand, has a contract that expires at the end of the 2013-14 season.

While Ulster have welcomed back a number of their front-line players, including the international quartet Rory Best, Iain Henderson, Chris Henry and Craig Gilroy , Afoa will be sorely missed as the province has slipped badly over the last few months.

From top of the table Ulster currently stand at third place, level with Glasgow on points but behind the Scottish team on points difference. The game on Saturday is pivotal to their hopes of earning a home draw in the knockout stages and they travel to Dublin having won only once in their last five outings. “That’s the way rugby is today, it’s disruptive and it’s about how you go through your lows and how you bounce back, it’s about how you handle the loss of form and losing players to injury and internationals,” said Anscombe.

Attitude is good
“We haven’t been performing and we have been below par but the attitude is good they have trained well. When you’re missing your international players it’s crucial that the overseas guys help you bleed and grow the younger guys but in that four-week window (Nick) Williams was out, Muller was out, Payne was out and Ruan was out.

“People say awful circumstances have led to it but if we sat down last August or September and you gave me the scenario we have today and I would have taken it.”

Anscombe must now decide who to put in against Leinster’s likely choice at loosehead prop, Cian Healy, with Tom Court a likely candidate to face the first-choice Irish player as Declan Fitzpatrick is currently injured. Fitzpatrick’s injury obviously adds to the headache as Ulster undertook an experiment of sorts a few weeks ago, where Afoa played on the loosehead side and Fitzpatrick went in at tighthead.

Belfast Harlequin’s Ricky Lutton, who can play prop or hooker and earned a development contract with Ulster at the beginning of this season, is included in the extended squad week along with Ulster Academy prop Kyle McCall. Either way it looks as though the frontrow battle in the RDS will favour the home side.