Karl Tu’inukuafe laughs when it’s suggested to him that, if a film script was written about his rugby career, a producer would reject it because it was too far-fetched. His story isn’t over yet, as he heads off in October to Montpellier in France to complete what amounts to a circle of rugby life. The last time he went to France it was, in his words, as “a security guard who plays rugby”.
This time he’ll arrive as a 27-Test All Black. Talking to him now, it’s soon clear the change in his playing fortunes is still a source of amazement and delight to him. His first Test, against France, remains a career highlight. Looking back to the night of June 9, 2018 at Eden Park, he says it’s no wonder tears were running down his cheeks during ‘God Defend New Zealand’.
Just a year before, he says, “I was bouncing at night clubs, playing a bit of club rugby, and now here I am standing at Eden Park rubbing shoulders and singing the national anthem with these guys I’d seen on TV. I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t sung the national anthem since primary school, and now I’m singing it for the All Blacks, and about to do the haka. It really hit me. That moment in 2018, those emotions came rushing through, and I was wondering how I could ever have been in that situation. It was pretty crazy.”
When he came on as a replacement, and won a penalty in his first scrum in the black jersey, the crowd hailed the arrival of a player who would be quickly embraced as a cult hero. Coach Steve Hansen offered a quirky, but heartfelt, tribute after the game. “Karl’s got a moustache like Keith Murdoch, and he scrums like him.”
In an age where most All Blacks make their first television appearances starring in a First XV game, and have signed an academy contract before they’re out of their teens, Tu’inukuafe, genuinely as unassuming and likeable as he looks, was a representative for Everyman, someone who made it in his mid-20s on grit, strength and determination. It was entirely appropriate that Tu’inukuafe made his debut against France. It was a stint in France that made him the prop Hansen admired.
Tu’inukuafe’s backstory in New Zealand has become the stuff of legends. At Wesley College, he liked playing video games more than rugby. He famously only started playing club footy for Takapuna in 2015 because, as a dangerously obese 170kg 22-year-old, his doctor told him he needed to lose weight or face serious health problems. Aiming to play with his brothers in the reserve grade team, he was headhunted by the premiers.
North Harbour coach Steve Jackson saw him playing for Takapuna, and Tu’inukuafe found himself part of the 2015 Harbour squad. He only got on the field once, as a late replacement against Manawatū, and it was no fairytale beginning – Harbour lost 31-17, and he gave away a penalty in his first provincial scrum.
Everything changed when, from Narbonne in France, former Australian captain, Rocky Elsom, contacted his old Waratahs teammate, Daniel Halangahu, playing out his career at Harbour, and asked if he’d seen any good props lately. At the end of the year, Tu’inukuafe, his wife and young son were heading to Narbonne. Tu’inukuafe’s rugby and life would be changed forever.
“At Narbonne was my first time really scrummaging. I’d been picked up before for my running ability. I used to carry a lot and do everything but scrum. “But when I got there, my first day was a 45-minute session of live scrummaging. I’d never been through training like it. In New Zealand, even to this day, we don’t train like that. It was all live scrums, not weight training. There were a lot of veteran players, who were prepared to share with guys like me, guys honing their craft. I got a lot of the fundamentals, and picked up tricks of the trade, so I was very lucky.” It was invaluable knowledge, but it wasn’t gained without sacrifices. “At night, after I’d had a big scrum session, my neck and back would feel like I’d been flattened by a truck. I’d throw ice on the floor and lie on it, because I couldn’t sit properly. I couldn’t sleep at night sometimes because it was so painful. I’d never done anything like it. But it prepped me well for when I came back.”
He was due to head back to France on a three-year deal, but then suffered a broken leg in 2016, and the offer lapsed. He was still basically a reserve prop for Harbour in 2017, when new Harbour coach Tom Coventry recommended him to the Chiefs for the 2018 season. In a selection that stunned Tu’inukuafe and the rugby world, just six weeks after his first start for the Chiefs, he was joining the All Blacks in Auckland for the opening Test of the season, against France.
To his delight, “Coming into the camp, you could think guys like Sam Whitelock, or Dane Coles, or Ben Smith might be real old school and just talk to their mates. But they really made you feel part of the team, which made it very easy for me. You might not expect an All Black as experienced as Bender (Ben Smith) to be nice to some random security guy, but he was.”
Looking back, Tu’inukuafe says his first Test will forever be the highlight of his rugby career, but the 32-30 victory over South Africa in 2018, revenge for a 36-34 loss in Wellington the month before, is another especially sweet memory. “South Africa always sticks out. They have the biggest forwards, and they’re the hardest pack to work against. That was a great game in Pretoria. I’d found it a real battle, and then Owen Franks told me it was one of the hardest games he’d ever played. I thought, ‘Man, if Owie says that, I’m glad. I’m not the only one thinking how tough it was.’ France is tough too, but South Africa would be No 1.”
Position: Loosehead prop
Teams: All Blacks, North Island, Blues, Chiefs, North Harbour, Narbonne (France), Takapuna (club), Wesley College (First XV)
All Blacks number: 1171
All Blacks 2018-22: 27 Tests/1 try
Blues 2019-22: 43 games/2 tries
Chiefs 2018: 16 games/1 try
North Harbour 2015-20: 29 games/3 tries (to August 30)
First-class 2015-22 (NZ): 116 games/7 tries (to August 30)
Honours: 2021 Super Rugby Trans-Tasman champion
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