Steve Hale has the oil on how the impressive Chiefs hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho has graduated to the All Blacks.
“Haha, Codie Taylor likes it,” booms Justin Marshall as a SKY TV camera operator zooms in on the veteran Crusaders hooker’s expression as he relaxes in the All Blacks dugout, seconds after his replacement, Samisoni Taukei’aho, scored on debut in the 58th minute of the Hamilton Test match against Fiji.
This try was the culmination of a diligent, well-crafted eight-man effort in which Taukei’aho displayed the maturity and patience to sit back in the tail, stay bound, clutching the pill “in the van” as South African commentators used to say, all the way to the tryline. Taylor could have been excused if he had made a slight grimace instead of a second beaming smile 23 minutes later when Taukei’aho decided to dot down again. The debutant’s second try in the 81st minute of play, also from a set lineout play, was a bruising, individual effort. After Taukei’aho hit replacement lock Brodie Retallick with pinpoint precision, Ardie Savea looped round the front of the lineout, drawing the first defender to feed Taukei’aho, who had deftly positioned himself in the field of play, inches from the touchline. From 10 metres out with a head of steam up, Taukei’aho rumbles over, bumping off Fijian replacement winger Moses Sorovi, who was left in a heap as the All Blacks cruised to a 47-point win over a gallant Fijian side.
The 24-year-old’s powerhouse debut was a clear statement of intent that he will become a regular member of future All Blacks sides, not a one-cap wonder. While Dane Coles, Codie Taylor and Asafo Aumua will have thoroughly enjoyed the new All Blacks rake’s impressive performance, they will also have noticed the seamless transition that Taukei’aho made to the international arena and the dynamic power game he offers.
The Tongan-born hooker’s call-up to All Blacks ranks generated plenty of debate throughout the social media channels. A number of Ash Dixon fans on the Facebook page ‘The Legend of Marty Banks’ felt aggrieved that the Highlanders’ captain, a fine player at Super level, had been ignored for a lesser-known player from Ian Foster’s home province.
While Dixon without question is an outstanding performer at Super Rugby level, technically accurate in all facets of play and a highly experienced campaigner to boot, he lacks the size and dynamism the All Blacks forwards need to dominate the likes of England, France and South Africa.
The carrying and tackling of Taukei’aho has been a feature of his play since he made his debut for Waikato back in 2016. His ability to win collisions and make dominant carries post-tackle through power and leg drive combine with that Ardie Savea ‘never say die’ mindset. At 115kg, the burly Taukei’aho is also a powerful scrummager; the resurgence of the Chiefs’ scrum throughout the 2021 Super Rugby Aotearoa season is testament to his effort and application in this area. Through consistent performances, Taukei’aho usurped former All Blacks hooker Nathan Harris to become the Chiefs’ premier rake.
Taukei’aho joins fellow Tongans Karl Tu’inukuafe and Ofa Tuungafasi in the All Blacks’ front-row stable. One man who is an astute judge of the dark arts, Carl Hoeft, a veteran of 30 Test matches himself and the first All Blacks prop of Tongan heritage, likes what Taukei’aho brings to the table.
“Coles and Taylor are both outstanding,” reflects Hoeft, currently the Mitsubishi Dynaboars assistant coach.
“I think Codie Taylor is our No 1 now, while Dane, who will be managing his body, still shows he has plenty to offer. Samisoni is a big body and that’s a great option for the All Blacks to have at their disposal. He scrums well and carries the ball strongly. When it comes to the crux, in those tight matches against the likes of England or the Boks, his set-piece and go-forward could add another dimension to our pack. I have heard the reservations about his throwing accuracy as he has been working his way up, but there didn’t look to be anything wrong with his throwing to me against a big, athletic Fijian pack when he was aiming at Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock. When you have a pair of locks both standing 2.03m or 2.04m, in a unit with three or four legitimate jumping options, there is less pressure on your hooker who can function with a lot more composure.”
Hoeft’s insights regarding the benefits of throwing to tall timber are extremely valid, considering both Waikato and Chiefs sides in recent years have lacked Test quality height, and opted to field hard-working specialist flankers like Mitch Brown or Hamilton Burr in their respective engine rooms.
Taukei’aho, who first played in New Zealand while captaining Tonga Under 15s, is the third All Black (after Geoff Hines and Kit Fawcett) for Hamilton-based private school, St Paul’s Collegiate. The First XV coach Paul Hodder has worked closely with Taukei’aho both on and off the field, continuing to support the young hooker after he left school.
“Samisoni actually stayed with my wife and I in that critical 18-month period for boys after they finish secondary school. We loved having him at home. He is intelligent and works hard. He went straight into a boarding house environment at St Paul’s upon arriving in New Zealand with little English. Our international students department certainly offered him a lot of support, which he took, but he also worked really hard to improve his English, which he has achieved to the level that he enrolled in the University of Waikato to study law upon leaving school. That just shows the mark of the man.”
While professional rugby has taken hold of Taukei’aho’s life for now, Hodder encourages him to keep completing papers whenever he can.
Hodder affectionately described Tauke’iaho as a bit of a wrecking ball on the field for the First XV.
“He was direct with his carries and gave our side plenty of go-forward. We still talk a lot about staying grounded, taking everything one day at a time, not getting too far ahead of yourself and working hard. Samisoni certainly does that.”
Hodder also introduced Taukei’aho to the Fraser Tech club where he was also coaching. Former Fijian Test hooker and captain Greg Smith also became another valuable mentor for Tauke’iaho at Tech.
“The aim was to try and look after the young man, but he ended up playing every single game,” Hodder laughs.
He agrees that there is nothing wrong with Taukei’aho’s lineout work.
“A lineout has lots of moving targets, there are calls to learn, and the other forwards executing their roles play a crucial role in getting it right. Where Samisoni has really benefitted is from the consistency of playing every week. Those regular starts develop confidence. His set-piece work is of a high standard and those carries against tired defences in the third quarter of a match really take their toll. The exciting thing is, as he continues to work hard every day, his all-round game will continue to improve.”
All Blacks number: 1198
All Blacks 2021
(to September 11):
4 Tests/2 tries
49 games/6 tries
44 games/20 tries