Gregor Paul 's Opinion

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: Margins too tight for slip

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Attitude is the only real difference between two talented props taking very different paths.

Ofa Tu'ungafasi made the 28-man Blues squad. Photo / Getty Images
Ofa Tu'ungafasi made the 28-man Blues squad. Photo / Getty Images

There are obvious similarities between Ofa Tu'ungafasi and Ben Tameifuna - but only up to a point.

They both come from unfashionable rugby schools, are both outlandishly sized and both played for New Zealand under-20s and won Super Rugby contracts in the same year.

It's there, though, that their paths may well diverge. Tameifuna became one of the more heart-warming stories of the year when he was forced into action for the Chiefs early in the campaign after Ben Afeaki broke his arm. There were fears he wasn't ready but by June, he was in the All Blacks squad.

Technically, Tameifuna was neat and advanced; he was immensely strong but also chronically under-conditioned. Somehow he was getting by despite carrying 10kg he didn't need - his frame lavished with bad calories - and post-Super Rugby, Tameifuna was packed off to Hawke's Bay to play a bit and train a lot.

The challenge for Tameifuna was to transform himself from a 140kg slab into a leaner, more muscular 130kg athlete.

It hasn't happened. He was dropped for the last few games of the ITM Cup and last week was in court for driving offences. He clearly hasn't done the hard work and until he does, until he finds the self-discipline to manage his weight, diet and training, his All Black aspirations will be on hold.

Tu'ungafasi, equipped with the same mobility and natural raw strength as Tameifuna, is a different mental and emotional beast. The new Blues recruit's self-reliance and discipline can be sighted in his physique: he's 1.94m and 130kg - but it's in all the right places. His aerobic capacity is also considerable for a man of his size and something he owes to his time at Mangere College, where he had to operate across the pack, serving as a utility forward.

"It was hard being noticed at a school like Mangere College," says Tu'ungafasi. "I think, though, that there was a selector who lived not too far away and he must have heard something and he kept an eye on us."

However it happened, Tu'ungafasi was noticed and played two years for New Zealand Secondary Schools and then graduated to the under-20s this year while a member of the Blues academy.

Originally, new Blues coach John Kirwan wanted to introduce Tu'ungafasi into Super Rugby in 2014, believing the youngster would benefit from another 12 months in the academy, playing club rugby and ITM Cup. But the danger of that scenario was that another franchise would pounce, offer Tu'ungafasi a full contract for 2013 and questions would be asked as to how the Blues managed to lose yet another emerging talent.

So the plan was brought forward, Tu'ungafasi was brought into the protected 28 players for next year and Pauliasi Manu de-listed. The Rebels snapped up Manu - not something Kirwan wanted to happen - and the upshot is that Tu'ungafasi, much like Tameifuna this year, might find himself on the field next year way more than he ever imagined.

Charlie Faumuina will carry the bulk of the burden at tighthead but he can't do it all; Tu'ungafasi will be asked to fast-track his learning.

It is a major task for a 20-year-old tighthead to handle the physical and technical demands of Super Rugby but Owen Franks managed it, as did Tameifuna.

No one can be certain whether Tu'ungafasi will, too, but he made a seamless transition into the ITM Cup this year and what is encouraging is his dedication in the gym, to the hard yards and details that make all the difference.

"I just want to work hard over the summer and get myself really fit," he says. "ITM Cup was a step up on every level, particularly on the physical side and I would imagine Super Rugby will be another jump again. But I'm hoping that if the opportunity comes my way, I can take it; show that I'm ready to play at that level."

Where Tameifuna struggled, Tu'ungafasi is fancied to excel. Big men are everywhere in Auckland but not all of them are big and fit; even fewer are big, fit, focused and capable of sustaining it.

Tameifuna faces a summer of pain to get himself in the appropriate shape and he'll need help to get there. Tu'ungafasi may not make the emphatic statement next year that Tameifuna did this, but as they stand now, the Blues man is the better long-term bet.

- Herald on Sunday

Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer. He has written several books on rugby including the Reign of King Henry, Black Obsession and For the Love of the Game.

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