By Chris Rattue
"It was the worst year of my life."
That's the solemn pronouncement from discarded All Black number eight Isitolo Maka, as he settles into life with the Super 12 Chiefs.
The 24-year-old powerhouse is looking forward to a fresh start after a 1999 season which saw his career plummet like a stone, and a pretty big stone at that.
Maka admits that his attitude also nosedived in the second half of last year when he realised the All Black selectors weren't interested in him, and that his fitness might not have quite been what it should.
But he also believes he was dealt with harshly, particularly in the way he was dropped from the All Black summer training squad that went into Army camp early last year, in what was the first boot-clad steps towards the World Cup.
The Maka fall from grace was dramatic to say the least. At the end of 1998, he appeared to be the All Black number eight-elect after three second-half appearances and then a start against South Africa in Durban.
While there remained a suspicion that coach John Hart still had doubts over whether Maka was the style of number eight he wanted, he was well in the frame.
Yet a year later, the big man had been snuffed out of the test picture after being denied access to the Army training camp, along with Joeli Vidiri and Jonah Lomu, for apparently not meeting fitness standards. To make matters worse, he was then dropped from the Highlanders 2000 squad after four seasons with the southern side.
Coach Tony Gilbert, who has since risen to become the All Black assistant with Peter Sloane taking over the Highlanders, told Maka he wanted an extra tight forward and would carry only five loosies. It was another indication from the hierarchy that Maka's star had fallen.
He then had to sit on the sidelines watching the Caleb Ralph negotiations between Auckland and Canterbury to see if he had a place in the Crusaders, before Nick Holten's shoulder injury opened up a place for him at the Chiefs.
Maka says he was confused by his dropping from the Army camp last year because he had told the selectors he could not do the fitness trials due to a hamstring injury.
"I thought it was a bit harsh," Maka says.
The next body-blow came after the Highlanders, with Maka one of the stars, had scored a brilliant win over the Stormers at Newlands in the Super 12 semifinal last year. Maka says Hart pulled him aside to say he would miss out on the test squad.
"He told me the reason was I wasn't getting enough game time. I was being subbed off in the second half, although that wasn't my decision. He wanted me to be playing whole games," says Maka.
"He said that he would be choosing Dylan Mika because he could cover both number eight and blindside.
"I thought then, 'I've got no chance of getting back in.' Everything seemed to be going wrong.
"I'd had a reasonable Super 12 but then I had a pretty horrible NPC. It was the worst year of my life."
Maka was regarded as the heaviest All Black of all time when he made his debut in 1998 weighing 124kg. He reached 129kg last season, but hard training has him back to 124, and he is aiming to get down to 119 or 120.
At the Chiefs camps he has done three extra 40-minute runs a week, starting at 6 am, before the general training begins.
Chiefs coach Ross Cooper has not been afraid to use Maka's horrible 1999 as a spur, reminding him that he has plenty to prove.
Maka is among a number of fringe test players in the Chiefs who will be wanting to remind the All Black selectors of their abilities.
Maybe the biggest boost for Maka was the way Australia showed through Toutai Kefu how important it is to have a powerful, linebreaking runner near the tight exchanges, as they won the fourth World Cup.
But Maka says he is now taking one step at a time, and not focusing on regaining the black jersey just yet.
"Everyone has been very welcoming here and I've really enjoyed training with these guys," says Maka, at training at Porritt Stadium in Hamilton this week.
"It is not just about proving things to people like Tony Gilbert. I've just got to prove it to myself.
"As a team we've got something to prove. This is a new beginning, a fresh start for me. I'm really looking forward to it."