Last December, John Afoa became the highest-paid player in English club rugby. Ben Stanley visited him in Gloucester and asked him about the pressure that brings and why he decided not to come home last year.

John Afoa knows the question is coming but that doesn't stop him wincing when he hears it.

It's well reported how much your contract here is worth, John. Does that come with much extra pressure?

The highest paid player in English club rugby eases his huge front-rower's frame back into the couch and shakes his head ever so slightly.

"More like overly reported," Afoa says with a defeated kind of grin growing on his face.


The 36-test All Black is sitting in a two-room hut used for player interviews beside a wind-swept rugby paddock just out of Hartpury, Gloucestershire. This is the place where Afoa and his Gloucester team-mates train.

When you talk about Afoa's rugby life these days, it's not the idyllic rural rugby ground he trains on that is of much interest, it's the reported four-year, $4 million dollar deal he signed with Gloucester that got him there.

When the 31-year-old signed with the club last December, he became the third-highest paid player in Europe, trailing only Toulon's now-retired Jonny Wilkinson ($1.12 million a year) and Racing Metro's Jonathan Sexton ($1.04 million).

For many in rugby circles back in New Zealand, it was a head-scratching figure. Sure, Afoa was a good All Black - a solid, dependable front rower with an ever-dynamic versatility around the field. Sure, quality tighthead props are always in short supply in Europe.

But a million bucks a year? That's got to create a bit of pressure.

"I think it does," Afoa says. "The money is more reported on here. In New Zealand, no one knows anything.

"The NZRU run it. You never hear any money stories back home. [The contract] comes with its pressures but, I guess, it comes back to that option to go back to New Zealand."

As Afoa's three-year post-World Cup contract with Irish club Ulster reached its end last year, the long-time Blues prop was thinking about returning home.


The move was tempting for family reasons, and a potential All Blacks jumper at next year's World Cup was a big carrot, too.

A deal got "close" but a $180,000 salary - rumoured to be offered to him by the Blues - was nowhere near what the number of French clubs chasing him - and finally Gloucester - were willing to pay.

"I was talking with JK [Sir John Kirwan] at the Blues," says Afoa, who explains later it had always been his intention to finish his rugby career in Europe. "It was close, but the NZRU couldn't guarantee anything. We weren't too sure what was going to be the bottom line, and what I was going to get.

"Over here, I had already been to a few French clubs and seen the packages they were offering. Gloucester came in quite late."

Afoa's tenure in the West Country has started slowly. The big prop carried a back injury sustained in an Ulster Heineken Cup playoff with him to Gloucester that has only recently fully healed.

At Gloucester's recent home defeat to the Harlequins - home of former All Blacks first five-eighths Nick Evans - Afoa wasn't a big factor in the encounter.

The Gloucester forward pack went backwards for the majority of the 80 minutes and Afoa's running game was muted.

Gloucester coach Laurie Fisher, formerly of the ACT Brumbies, is confident Afoa's impact on English rugby will be felt soon.

"John has probably taken a little while to find his feet but he's been building and building as the weeks go on," Fisher says. "He's getting more confident, especially around scrum-time. I like John, because he's a thinker about the game.

"He'll always come and ask questions, maybe challenge you with an idea. I think he's really grown in the place. I think he's going to be an enormously valuable member of the squad over a number of years."

Off the field, Afoa and his young family are enjoying life in England. He, wife Theresa and their three children live in Cheltenham, just north of Gloucester.

"Family life is easy," he says. "We travel back on the day of the games. If we play Saturdays, we leave that morning and come back that night.

"I can still make it to mini-rugby on Sundays, which is when the kids play. It's all positive stuff."

It's much more enjoyable than fielding questions about his income. Those questions will keep coming but Afoa has plenty of time yet to justify being English rugby's million dollar man.

John Afoa




Prop, hooker


Blues (2004-11, 101 games), Ulster (2011-14, 58), Gloucester (2014, 10)


36 (2005-11, debut v Ireland in Dublin)


Member of 2011 Rugby World Cup-winning All Blacks squad.