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6 October 2022
bunnings npc rd 1 waikato v hawke's bay

When Marino Mikaele-Tu’u lined up a sideline conversion to cap his 50th match for the Hawke’s Bay Magpies last month, it looked like he had been doing it all his life. It went straight and true off his favoured left boot in what turned out to be a Ranfurly Shield romp over the Southland Stags at McLean Park.

But it was in fact the first successful goalkick of his life, “if you don’t include all the ones I get at the captain’s run.” “A few boys jump in at the captain’s run with the first fives and have a few shots. I didn’t expect that one to go over,” says the 24-year-old Mikaele-Tu’u. Something about forwards always wanting to kick goals. You don’t see backs jumping into scrums… Anyhow, when Mikaele-Tu’u calls time one day on his Magpies career, they probably won’t remember him for that kick.

They will remember him for being front and centre of a solid pack during a stirring two-year, 14-match tenure with the Shield. They will recall his muscular ball-carrying ability up the middle or in the wider channels, his bruising defence, including a trysaver against the Steelers this season, and lineout prowess as jumper or lifter. He is now six years into his provincial career, with five seasons at the Highlanders under his belt, and he is amongst the best loose forwards covering six and eight in the nation.

There just happens to be a lot of depth and competition in that area. Hell, it’s hard enough just making the Magpies’ loose trio on any given match-day. Devan Flanders, Josh Kaifa, Solomone Funaki and Gareth Evans can suit up in all three positions, while Mikaele-Tu’u and Sione Tuipulotu can switch between eight or six. Then there are Sam Smith and Will Tremain to cover openside. It makes for selection headaches for head coach Josh Syms. This season, Mikaele-Tu’u, after operating mainly off the back of the scrum for the Highlanders, has mostly worn the No 6 jersey for Hawke’s Bay.

“I was obviously at No 8 for the Highlanders but Shannon Frizell was at six. I played where he didn’t want to play,” quips Mikaele-Tu’u. He is not necessarily expected to be the enforcer defensively on the side of the scrum. In fact, there is free licence as to what lines he runs and where he pops up in phase play. “With this group, if we are stuck on the edge, we can do a role there. There’s no set enforcer role. If we stay in the middle, we back ourselves to do the job,” he says. “We’ve got some quality players. Devan is unreal, man. He’s coming into his own. Josh Kaifa is a bit older than us but a few years as a pro has done him wonders.”

Hawke’s Bay tends to use the set-piece as its attacking platform, be it scrum or lineout. “It’s been the mentality for Hawke’s Bay rugby dating back a while now. The boys back themselves up front. Tom Parsons is doing a great job in putting down that platform,” he says. So where does Mikaele-Tu’u position himself on those famed Magpies’ rolling mauls? “I just put my head down and push, but I might have to sneak my way into the back,” he quips. By the time you read this, the Magpies should be preparing for the NPC playoffs after emerging from the Odds conference. The Shield is gone but the team was still searching for the 80-minute display they know is there, latent.

The Magpies are a different team in personnel and mindset from the 2016 side that Mikaele-Tu’u first joined as an 18-year-old rookie, first year out of Hastings BHS. Craig Philpott and Danny Lee were running the ship back then and there were some old heads in the pack, including Ash Dixon, Ben May, Ross Filipo and Tony Lamborn. It didn’t go so well back in the Premiership, with just two victories. Mikaele-Tu’u debuted off the pine against Wellington at McLean Park in the opener.

“There were heaps of old heads and I was the young boy coming in. I was pretty nervous and didn’t know how the boys operated.” As time passed, Mark Ozich brought some of his precocious young talent from the gun Hastings BHS First XV through, and they were blossoming in 2021 when Hawke’s Bay topped the Premiership standings before coming unstuck against the Tasman Mako in a home semifinal. “The core group has been together for three years now. Everyone knows each other on and off the field and everyone gels,” Mikaele-Tu’u says. Despite some inconsistent form during the regular season, Mikaele-Tu’u still backs his team to give the NPC a shake in the playoffs (if they make it).

“We fell short last year, which was a bit disappointing after the way we were going throughout the year. We had a pretty awesome season, so the boys will be itching to get back into the playoffs and put out a performance we know we are capable of.” His own form was very good, and you cannot say that about all Super Rugby players who go down a level to the NPC after big minutes at the front-end of the season. Mikaele-Tu’u played 12 games (out of 15) with eight starts for the 2022 Highlanders, but did not play club rugby for Hastings Rugby and Sports through June and July.

“We have a bit of a break after Super Rugby. I enjoy playing rugby for Hawke’s Bay. It brings me back to why I want to play footy. It’s not hard mentally to get up and play with the boys,” he says. The pressure is not at the same level, nor is the rugby, but if it’s money that motivates you then Japan, the UK or France are the destinations. Mikaele- Tu’u has a year to run on both his Highlanders and Hawke’s Bay deals, and could well renew. His name was in the All Blacks conversation in June after he was consistently the Highlanders’ best forward in 2022. So were the names of Cullen Grace and Luke Jacobson, who were also unlucky to miss the cut.

Grace is now injured and Jacobson won the recall for the Bledisloe Cup, but there are northern tours on the horizon, for not just the All Blacks but the next tier All Blacks XV. All things being equal, one would think Mikaele-Tu’u would at least make that All Blacks XV. Not that the prospect of a black jersey to follow his NZ Under 20s and NZ Schools representation from 2015 and 2017 is uppermost in his mind. “There were a few whispers and whatnot around All Blacks selection, but it didn’t faze me too much. I had a few injuries last year so I was just stoked to consistently be on the field.

I was lucky enough to have my name in the conversation. “Browny (Highlanders coach Tony Brown) knew what my strengths were. He told me to play my own game and the rest will follow. He helped me a lot, so I didn’t have to take on too much,” says Mikaele-Tu’u. Regardless of what team he makes, he’ll be watching sister Liana turning out for the Black Ferns at Rugby World Cup.

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