Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Atiga's star shone briefly

After a year away from the game in 2009, Ben Atiga (left) played for Auckland in 2010 and Otago in 2011. Photo / Getty Images
After a year away from the game in 2009, Ben Atiga (left) played for Auckland in 2010 and Otago in 2011. Photo / Getty Images

There was a time when Ben Atiga was seen as such a potent attacking weapon that British Lions coach Clive Woodward singled out the Aucklander as the man of whom he was most wary ahead of the 2005 tour to New Zealand.

Clearly Atiga had something back in those days; enough to be plucked out of the NPC ahead of the legendary Christian Cullen to replace Ben Blair in the 2003 All Black World Cup squad. Woodward's interest was piqued so he found the tapes of Atiga in the NPC that year and was taken with what he saw.

Atiga's rise to the national team in 2003 was the sub-plot to the most perplexing story of that year: the continued non-selection of Cullen.

No one could quite fathom why then coach John Mitchell was so overtly anti-Cullen. The greatest attacking fullback in history had found some edge and spark after a knee operation but Mitchell wouldn't budge.

Whether there was personal animosity or a definite sense of Cullen no longer being up to it, Mitchell earned the wrath of the nation.

That became worse when it was Atiga, only 20 and without even having played Super Rugby, who was summoned to replace the injured Blair.

Almost nine years on and Atiga is a name all but forgotten in wider rugby circles and the story of how he fell into obscurity is worth telling before the one test All Black disappears to his new life with Edinburgh.

Atiga says he will leave for Scotland with no regrets and, even if it was just four minutes of game time that he earned as an All Black, it's four minutes he'll cherish for the rest of his days. But it's difficult looking back not to wonder whether he would have enjoyed a longer test career had he not been rushed with almost obscene haste into the national set-up.

Never has the phrase 'too much, too soon' been more applicable.

"I can actually remember that myself, Luke McAlister and Thomas Waldrom felt that we needed a break after playing for the New Zealand Colts so in 2003, I took some time out doing labouring jobs for my club coach at the time," says Atiga. "I wanted a rest and to think a little bit about where I was heading career-wise. I had been playing non-stop for more than a year through age-grades and club rugby. When I look back now, it puts it into perspective that I went from labouring to playing for the All Blacks in a very short space of time."

Atiga doesn't say it but he was cursed by expectation. Through no fault of his own, he was selected ahead of a national icon by a coach whose public standing plummeted after the tournament. It was a hard place for a 20-year-old to find himself.

"I knew what was going on," he says. "I was thinking what everyone else was thinking and that he [Cullen] should have gone. But I couldn't control that and I was proud to wear that jersey and contribute what I could."

The problem, of course, was that Atiga began the 2004 season, his first Super Rugby campaign, having to prove himself to a sceptical public.

The issue was compounded by the fact that for the first time in his life, Atiga couldn't rely on his natural talent alone, as a chronic knee injury reduced his ability to train. The next four years fell into a familiar pattern - Atiga battled with his weight and conditioning and for game time at the Blues.

Comfortable at centre or fullback, he couldn't hold a place in either berth and the promise he had shown in 2003 all but vanished. It was a vicious cycle that ended in 2008 when he decided that, despite being only 25, he was mentally and physically shot and needed to take some time out.

"I was over rugby at that point," he says. "I wasn't in good shape and I needed some time out to mentally freshen. I had lost sight of my priorities and I wanted to spend more time with my family. I took a year out and got back in touch with friends I hadn't seen since school and made a whole new network of friends as well. I actually thought I would never come back to play rugby. I wasn't in touch with anyone or even following it on TV."

That all changed when he was invited to play in a charity game at Eden Park and all the old feelings rushed back. He was excited and "a light bulb switched on in my head that I wanted to play again".

He played for Auckland in 2010 and joined Otago in 2011 to get out of his comfort zone and will shortly join Edinburgh on a two-year contract. Edinburgh are sure they have bought a solid, reliable, experienced player and no one would doubt that. But Atiga could have been so much more. No, he wasn't Cullen but in 2003, he was a hugely exciting prospect: elusive, skilled and in possession of a deadly step. The promise he showed that year was never fulfilled, a point he doesn't really dispute.

"I don't think any player is ever satisfied they have achieved all they want and been the complete player," he says. "I developed injuries and became a bit stale and was never quite at my free-running best. I struggled with my weight. I am, I suppose, a typical Polynesian boy and I yo-yo from one extreme to the other.

"But I feel I have my discipline right now and I have kept the weight off for some time. I have no regrets, though, about my time in New Zealand and feel I contributed strongly to Auckland and the Blues."

- Herald on Sunday

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