Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

All Blacks: A tight forward who just loves to run loose

Charlie Faumuina is to lose his trademark beard for charity - but will grow it back. Photo / Getty Images
Charlie Faumuina is to lose his trademark beard for charity - but will grow it back. Photo / Getty Images

Charlie Faumuina isn't your usual international prop. He has ball skills, pace and a serviceable sidestep - all instinctive and honed during his years as a No8 and now being put to use as a point of difference in the front row.

His scrummaging has been improving too. When he replaced Owen Franks in the second half of the past two tests against France and England, the scrum was noticeably steadier - a testament to his 125kg bulk as well as his strength and technique.

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Franks has been the incumbent tighthead prop for the All Blacks since soon after he made his test debut in 2009. Faumuina emerged for the All Blacks last year and, after a couple of problems with his calf muscles, has grown to be a big talent.

The issue for him, though, is that the impact he provides as a replacement - both in the scrum and in the loose, where he is often outstanding - has confined him to a bench role.

Steve Hansen has said his is the ideal skill set to have there.

Tomorrow morning, however, he gets an opportunity to start for only the sixth time in 17 tests and first against Ireland. He revealed he had some cheeky advice for propping rival Franks after the 30-22 victory over England at Twickenham.

Bursting through on to a short pass on the angle from Brodie Retallick, Franks found himself in wide open spaces with only fullback Mike Brown to beat. Failing to find someone to pass to, Franks took the default option and dropped his shoulder into Brown, the fullback making the tackle but Kieran Read scoring soon after.

"I've been giving him a hard time - I said 'you should have tried the chip and chase'," Faumuina said.

It's easy to think that when you're watching from the sideline, of course, but Faumuina, who will turn 27 on Christmas Eve, is probably one of the few tight forwards with the ability to pull something like that off.

His affinity for being in possession of the ball stems from his background as a No8. He only made the switch to the front row at the age of "18 or 19" after he got too "big and slow" to play in the loose forwards. Soon after, he was the cornerstone of the Auckland and Blues scrum.

"I enjoyed my time there," he said of playing in the loose forwards. "You obviously get to run with the ball, which I still love to do."

Asked how he took the news of his shift to the front row, Faumuina said: "I was thinking it was probably going to mean a little less time with the ball and more hard work but it's worked out well for me so far, so I'm happy.

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"I'd like to think that I am [skilful]. I like to get around the park and try to get as much time with the ball. It's natural. I used to play a little bit of league when I was younger and you learn to love the contact."

After a couple of false starts to his test career - he suffered a calf injury after being named in the squad for last year's June internationals and had a similar problem 12 months later - Faumuina has taken off.

He was thankful for the way Hansen and Co kept him in the loop during his injury lay-offs, saying he thrived on the constant feedback, and puts his form down to feeling like he fits in.

"You get a little bit more comfortable with the guys around you and you get to know how they play and how best to play off them. I've learned a lot from the other guys as well, from the likes of Kevvy [Mealamu], Woody [Tony Woodcock] and Owen as well."

He would much rather start a game than come on as a replacement, though: "You get a little bit more time if you start and it's probably a little easier. I'd probably rather have a skill set that suits starting a game but I'm here for the team."

Now that he is here, he is aiming to keep it that way. There is hard work ahead during summer before he will meet up with his Blues team-mates, including the returning Woodcock, Ma'a Nonu, Jerome Kaino and new boy Benji Marshall.

"I'm looking forward to the summer but I can't enjoy it too much. I'll probably have one week off and then you're back into training.

"It never came easy for me, it's something I have to work hard on all the time," he said of his fitness. "You can't really have a blow-out eating-wise. For a guy like me, if I put on two or three kilograms, it's not good for my rugby.

Another thing he is about to lose is his trademark beard. It's coming off in February to raise money for CureKids but maybe not for too long.

"My wife and mum are really looking forward to it [going]. I've always had a beard but I shave it down and grow it again. It's just something that feels right."

- APNZ

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