Magpies v Waikato
Hawke's Bay Magpie Ben Tameifuna is overweight. Hawke's Bay Rugby Football Union chief executive officer Mike Bishop yesterday said the burly prop had been turning up to training with the squad but hadn't been doing enough to warrant selection.
"He certainly hasn't helped himself," Bishop said after some Bay fans started asking questions about why the Super Rugby title-winning Chiefs player suddenly fell out of favour with coach Craig Philpott during the ITM Cup Premiership campaign.
The Magpies are facing relegation to the lower-tier championship next year as they sit on the last rung of the premiership ladder with one more game to play tomorrow against Waikato in Hamilton.
The task of winning from the 5.35pm kick-off at Waikato Stadium has become a daunting one, considering it is a Ranfurly Shield challenge.
Tameifuna, who assured Magpies spectators he was postponing his 21st birthday celebrations on August 30 before the Counties Manukau match in Napier, returned to the Bay following a rigid training session with the greater All Blacks squad.
He had caught the eye of the national selectors following a stellar Super season under former Magpies co-coach Tom Coventry.
Coventry, the Chiefs' forwards coach who was also instrumental in turning the Manu Samoa pack into a force at the Rugby World Cup late last year, had taken the Hastings Rugby and Sport player under his wing and also provided accommodation for him.
Coventry was also excited by the prospect of Tameifuna's versatility, expecting him to be an accomplished hooker someday, with the Frank brothers parked on either side in the front row.
Bishop said Tameifuna returned to the Magpies after the Super Rugby campaign but wasn't in shape so "it has to do with his form".
Havelock North loosie Adam Brady personified fitness in the Bay squad by virtue of being part of the build-up here, something Tameifuna had failed to emulate after returning from his Super Rugby campaign.
Philpott had started Tameifuna on his preferred tighthead position but switched him to loosehead a few games into the season before dropping him altogether from the 22-member squad on September 29 for the winning match against the Bay of Plenty at McLean Park, Napier.
He is not in the equation for tomorrow's shield challenge.
Yesterday Tameifuna was running around with other teammates in a light training session at the Napier Old Boys' Marist grounds at Park Island with Magpies fitness trainer Grant Dearns, following a classroom session with Philpott and assistant coach Danny Lee.
Many fans have asked how a player who had achieved so much for the Chiefs and had meteorically risen to the ranks of making Steve Hansen's greater ABs squad had suddenly lost his fitness.
"I want to be up there with the Jonah Lomus and the Buck Shelfords. I grew up wanting to be like them so I'm just doing my bit," Tameifuna had said just before the cup opener against Auckland in Napier on August 23.
"Once in a while it's good to focus on the here and now to do the job for Hawke's Bay," said the former Hastings Boys' High School pupil, who has lost his position to Clive's Peter Borlase.
Bishop said the coaches and fitness staff had put a lot of effort into trying to pull the prop out of his predicament but to no avail.
The Auckland-born Tongan has made no secret of trying to establish a firm grasp on the food pyramid.
"You have to watch what you eat," he had told Hawke's Bay Today while in the ABs squad in June.
It's not easy for an island lad who loves his "ota ika" (raw fish) bathed in coconut cream and roast pig in "umu" (hangi) fashion. It's an inherited etiquette whose roots can be traced to the birth country of his parents, Ana Tameifuna and Albert Maka, where big is definitely beautiful and the term "Friendly Islands" is an oxymoron if the islanders' warfaring history against neighbours Fiji and Samoa is anything to go by.
"I've had to work on it. I love my traditional island food," he had said.
Tameifuna wasn't trying to shed copious amounts of kilos of his imposing 136kg frame but instead was adhering to a constitution that encouraged quality growth on the foundation of an acceptable metamorphosis.
"I have the same body composition going down. I'm losing fat and gaining muscle."
That meant he had switched to a daily diet built around salads but "keeping full" on a regimented three meals a day.
Bishop said different players had different needs, so the Magpies did what they could to ensure players were conditioned.
He understood Tameifuna stayed with Coventry but also flatted with some Chiefs teammates.
"Ben is a talented young man but he's also learned a few life's lessons," Bishop said.
"We all want young athletes to succeed and to eventually go on to become All Blacks.
"Ben's a good local lad and there's no questioning the guy's ability, if he can make it into the wider All Blacks training squad.
"We want him to be fit but the lad has just got to want to do it for himself."
Bishop said while they didn't have the resources to monitor players on and off the field they would have done everything possible to help him if he returned next year.
However, after tomorrow's game players would be reviewed for next season.
And yes, the Magpies believe they can win the Ranfurly Shield.
Bishop said "our friends in Waikato" would be the first to attest to how bad a season could be and yet they had the shield to show for it.
"If they are capable of doing it then so are we."
With grumblings from some quarters about having rookie coaches Philpott and Lee at the helm, Bishop said the union had no regrets in letting Peter Russell go.
He said the Russell and Coventry combination were in charge two seasons ago when the Magpies were relegated to the championship, so it would be no different for the incumbents who should be able to fight back into the premiership if they are relegated.
Coventry had gained promotion and had the union's blessing, something they couldn't do much about.
The Magpies permutations are less complex now. They need a double whammy - beat Waikato and grab the shield - but also rely on Canterbury to beat the Steamers on Sunday.
Bishop bemoaned the evaporation of a four to five-week window to prepare players coming from different franchises as the primary reason for their underachievement this winter.
"It's not an excuse but it's a fact because it makes a difference.
"Players aren't machines that they can play all year round. We need to give them a break to freshen them up, because they aren't robots."