Art student Tialata has talents beyond scrummaging

By Wynne Gray

The art of the frontrower.

It is a topic which is mysterious as ever but one which has provoked greater jingoism since the last World Cup as the All Blacks have regained their scrummaging mojo.

Neemia Tialata brings another twist to the theme as the All Blacks loosehead prop picked to duel tomorrow with the Springboks in Wellington.

Take him away from the muscular confrontations where he earns his salary and the 24-year-old is happiest dabbling with a paintbrush or pencil, sketching ideas or thoughts which have moved him.

Hints of his artistic streak are visible with the jewellery in his left ear and the tail ends of a tattoo sneaking out from under his sleeve.

Tialata is another from the talented pool of sportsmen around the Wainuiomata area in Wellington, a player with good skills, an appetite to succeed and the natural gifts of a massively powerful frame.

Scrum coach Mike Cron believes Tialata does not yet understand how powerful he is but is coming along nicely in his international apprenticeship.

This will be just Tialata's second start in seven tests, by far his toughest assignment against a seasoned Springbok front row. He does have, though, for All Black company Anton Oliver and Carl Hayman who are in the premium content category of New Zealand scrummagers.

"I have got a lot to live up to because Hayman, Mealamu and Woodcock have been doing such a fine job together," Tialata said.

"I just don't want to let myself, the coaches or the team down. I have been waiting for this."

Tialata was born in Wellington but moved, when he was one, to Samoa with his parents who were undergoing religious training. The family returned to their vocation in New Zealand when Tialata was five.

He has come through the sporting circles surrounded by other well-known locals such as Tana Umaga, Piri Weepu, the Waldrom brothers and plenty of league stars.

After his schooling finished and when rugby allowed, Tialata began studying for a diploma in visual arts.

"It's just a flash word for art," he laughed.

"It has been great, though, and I have one year left and then I want to do an extra year to get my degree."

Tialata has no personal preference, he will sketch in pencil, paint in oils or even sculpt, depending on his mood and his subject.

"I do whatever," he said. "It doesn't matter really. It depends on how I feel. If I see something I really like then I try and express it on canvas. The hard part is having enough time, getting into the right zone and having the peace to do the art.

"A lot of the boys tell me to do stuff for them but I do not have the time. You need space and you can't turn it on and off. You have to be in your own space and that happens at home but we are travelling and involved a lot with rugby."

However, with those restrictions, Tialata has been able to combine his art and the company of his All Black, Hurricanes and Wellington teammates.

His interest in tattooing has seen him draft some designs for his mates. Midfield back Ma'a Nonu sports one creation on his arm while Tialata has depicted his own background, family and life in ink on his left arm and back.

The arm took four hours over three sessions to create while a marathon six hours completed the design on his back in one hit.

"There was no pain, it was a good feeling, I went to sleep when they did the one on my back," he said.

In the future Tialata would like to teach art. Two little nieces warm his heart, he loves the time he spends hanging out with them and listening to their zest for life.

"Teaching art in school to kids like that would be fantastic," he said.

At the moment though, he is the pupil.

But Tialata's mind this week is all about crouch, hold, engage - and his other core duties.

He brings the mixed style the All Black selectors want. Originally a loosehead prop, Tialata has assisted the Hurricanes at tighthead in the last few seasons because of squad injuries.

Tomorrow he starts at loosehead as he did for his test debut, against Wales on last year's Grand Slam tour.

"It's going to be a very big challenge because the Springboks will be hurting after that loss in Brisbane. They base their game around their forwards, their pride has been hurt and they will be right into us.

"You never stop learning, if not off the coaches it is off the players. I have a long way to go but it feels good now."

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