Phil Gifford: Inside the 'secret society' of All Blacks

Author
NZ Herald,
Section
Opinion,
Publish Date
Friday, 19 April 2019, 10:38AM
Karl Tu'inukuafe's rise to the top has been remarkable. Photo / Photosport
Karl Tu'inukuafe's rise to the top has been remarkable. Photo / Photosport

COMMENT

Good Friday last year in Wellington. In the stand for the Hurricanes-Chiefs game are All Black selectors Ian Foster and Grant Fox. They've got a bunch of names to look at, but in particular, they're keen to see the 22-year-old Chiefs' prop, Aidan Ross.

But just 17 minutes into the game Ross's teammate Angus Ta'avao stumbles and falls on Ross' right ankle, which snaps. Ross lies face down in agony, they give him oxygen, and he leaves the field on a medicab.

His season is over.

And then, as Foster recalled this week, "on ran the big fella".

Karl Tu'inukuafe was on the selectors' radar but was really about as small a blip as anyone who weighs 135kg could be.

Chiefs' coach Colin Cooper had told the All Black selectors Tu'inukuafe was exceptionally strong, but there was a caveat. By Super Rugby standards, he was also very unfit.

Regardless of his fitness levels, in that game, Foster says Tu'inukuafe, "caught the eye" of the selectors. But he's quick to deflect any suggestion of talent spotting genius from the All Black panel.

"There was nothing magical about us noticing him. I think we learned about Karl at about the same time everybody else in the game did."

Where Tu'inukuafe did have an edge was that he would also impress All Black scrum guru Mike Cron.

"If we see anything in a front rower," says Foster, "Cronno will go and have a good look for us."

Excellence in the All Black scrum can be traced to the appointment of Cron as scrum coach in 2004 by Graham Henry, a role expanded by Steve Hansen for Cron to be designated forwards' coach from 2012.

A former detective in Christchurch, his coaching career has been long entwined with his former police colleague, Steve Hansen. They were coaching together when Hansen took over the Canterbury team in 2001.

Mike Cron and Steve Hansen go way back. Photo / Getty
Mike Cron and Steve Hansen go way back. Photo / Getty

Like Hansen, Cron, who New Zealand Rugby's CEO Steve Tew has quipped is "really only comfortable in the company of props", might seem an unlikely innovator.

A tall, burly man, as befits the fact he was a former prop himself, he's the sort of southern man who seems happiest fading into the background when media people are circling.

But what we do know is that he ranges widely, from the cultural to the brutal, when he's looking for ideas to help with forwards in general, and front row play in particular.

How wide?

He's been to Japan to see sumo wrestling. In the United States, he's been able to observe how the New York Giants train for the NFL, the Pittsburgh Pirates prepare for ice hockey, and has checked out what's behind the scenes at the New York Yankees baseball club.

In 2017, he told journalist Matt Tewhatu, "This year I went to the Royal New Zealand ballet for their lifting, and I went into cage fighting on the Gold Coast, looking at activities, how to get off the ground quickly, those sort of things".

Current All Black prop, Owen Franks, first encountered Cron when he was 16, still at school in Christchurch. "He's not only been a prop himself," says Franks, "but he has the biomechanical knowledge behind everything he teaches. It's all proven stuff. So his influence has been big."

Franks is an almost perfect example of what makes props intriguing to us mere mortals, who can't even begin to appreciate the pressure on a neck and back when two scrums, with a combined weight of around 1800kg, collide.

Franks wasn't born to be an All Black. It's family lore that as a seven-year-old he would sometimes tackle players in his own side. As a teenager, he wasn't massive.

But what he, and his older brother Ben, a fellow All Black prop, did was develop an extraordinary work ethic, channelled into very targeted weight training programmes, developing good, injury-avoiding lifting techniques, first with their father, and then with weight-lifting champion Warren Thin.

"Everything I have now," says Owen, "all comes through the work I've done in the gym, and out on the training field. If I hadn't done that I think I'd just be a regular club player. I don't think I'd be that fast, or that strong at all."

Owen Franks is a big fan of Mike Cron. Photo / Getty
Owen Franks is a big fan of Mike Cron. Photo / Getty

If being an All Black is to be in an exclusive club, props, without even trying, are like a secret society inside that group.

Occasionally little home truths leak out. I've never met a prop who believes referees have any idea what they're doing when they dish out a scrum penalty.

They are at once the most maligned, yet in many ways the most interesting, people in a rugby team.

Former All Black coach Eric Watson, a man with a sense of humour drier than the Taieri Plain in February, once claimed the only problem with props was "finding a big enough spanner to turn them round at halftime".

And it is true that you wouldn't automatically expect people who butt heads for a living to be witty, or clever, or skilled.

I beg to differ.

Quick-witted?

Please step forward Richard Loe, the All Black prop the Aussies loved to hate.

When Loe was banned for nine months in 1992 for eye gouging, roly-poly Wallaby prop Tony Daley presumed Loe's career was over, and cheerfully told a journalist he'd always regarded Loe as a "slimy" character.

Fast forward a year and Daley finds himself propping for New South Wales against Loe, now playing for Canterbury, in Christchurch. "Hello Fatty," purred Loe. "I read what you said about me."

Former All Black hardman Richard Loe wasn't only strong but quick-witted too. Photo / Getty
Former All Black hardman Richard Loe wasn't only strong but quick-witted too. Photo / Getty

Clever? I believe the only All Black to ever study business at Harvard was the late Wilson Whineray, who would eventually be knighted for his services to business and to rugby.

Whineray captained the All Blacks as a loosehead prop, unflappable and commanding.

I only saw him rattled once, in the early 1970s, when he was working for the Wool Board, trying to persuade sheep farmers to move their wool selling towards the more co-operative system used for dairy products.

Interviewing him in his Auckland office he'd just returned from a visit to fiercely independent farmers in Poverty Bay. There was amazement, even shock, in his voice, when he said, "One of them called me a communist!"

Then there's skill.

Jason Ryan, the current forwards' coach at the Crusaders, says he believes, for example, "Tighthead prop is probably the most demanding position on the rugby field. You can be half an inch off, and everything can go wrong pretty quick."

What's extraordinary in the Tu'inukuafe story is that he skipped the seasoning that most props have in their teenage years, when he didn't play rugby after leaving school.

Karl Tu'inukuafe. Photo / Photosport.co.nz
Karl Tu'inukuafe. Photo / Photosport.co.nz

There are reminders of Peter Fatialofa, neglected in the 1980s, as one of the All Black selectors of the time, John Hart, would tell me a decade later, because Hart, at Auckland and with the All Blacks, "thought at first he lacked concentration. I didn't realise how little rugby he had played before he started with Auckland".

Tu'inukuafe is, says Ian Foster, "in a steep learning curve with the game outside the scrum.".

Sheer power helped Fatialofa at scrum time.

"Others had strength from the gym. I got mine from the street. There's a big difference."

Tu'inukuafe's potency at prop feels as if it comes from a similar source. From his first scrum in a test, when he destroyed the French front row at Eden Park last year, there's never been any questions about whether he could handle scrum pressure at test level.

Like Tu'inukuafe it took longer for Fatialofa to be at home with how to position his body at breakdowns, and where he should be running to after a scrum or lineout.

Fatialofa would soon develop an all-round game, and find his place on the world stage, becoming the deeply respected captain of Manu Samoa.

Tu'inukuafe is going through the same process.

If Tu'inukuafe is as good as he is now, while he's still racing to develop a total game, how exciting is his future, and how good will he be when he's the complete package?