A prop who emerged from nowhere to potentially become the best on the planet is our sporting achievement of the year.

There hasn't been an All Blacks selection quite like Karl Tu'inukuafe. Not in the professional era. Maybe not ever.

His is surely the most remarkable story of the past 22 seasons. There have been a few others plucked from nowhere over the years and plonked into the All Blacks.

But the story didn't stop there. It was made even more astonishing when the former bouncer made the most of his chance, earning 13 test caps in 2018, tied for the most of any All Black this year. A player outside a Super Rugby squad playing the most tests in a season - that just doesn't happen.

Four years ago, Tu'inukuafe was staring death in the face. It was maybe not imminent, but without some kind of significant change in lifestyle, he probably didn't have long before tragedy struck.


He was pushing 175kg at the end of 2014 and he complained to his doctor of pain in his legs.

The doctor made it clear the pain wasn't going away if Tu'inukuafe continued to put on weight the way he was.

He had taken a mostly sedentary security job and given up rugby.

He'd been in the Wesley College first XV - playing alongside future French prop Uini Atonio - but work and life had got in the way of rugby.

"I think it was 2014 and I was complaining about a bit of pain in my legs and the doctor explained all the bad health decisions I was making," says Tu'inukuafe. "My eating was leading towards a heart attack or whatever. When he told me to lose weight, the easiest way was to play rugby with my brothers and family.

"I would rather do it with them on the field rather than try to do it on my own. That made it easier."

He had a good boss who allowed him to balance his job with sport and the weight came off. The fact he saved his own life by reconnecting with rugby is remarkable enough on its own.

But the story continued when he won a contract to play with Jerry Collins' old club in France, Narbonne.


That toughened him up and won him a place with the North Harbour side last year. Again, if that had been the end of his journey, it was still a remarkable turnaround.

Karl Tu'inukuafe on the attack during the All Blacks v France 2nd test match at Westpac Stadium, Wellington. Photo / Photosport
Karl Tu'inukuafe on the attack during the All Blacks v France 2nd test match at Westpac Stadium, Wellington. Photo / Photosport

But the three months at the start of the season were beyond believable. The Chiefs were hit with a run of injuries at prop, and by March, they had to scour the country for replacements.

They knew a little bit about Tu'inukuafe and called him in. They had no choice, really, and the big man, slimmed down to 135kg, made his debut against the Blues at Eden Park.

Being chucked in the deep end worked - he swam - and the All Blacks, having no idea who he was, suddenly found him quite compelling viewing.

And when Wyatt Crockett retired, Kane Hames couldn't shake his concussion and Tim Perry damaged his hamstring, the call went out to Tu'inukuafe to join the squad to face France.

He made his test debut on June 9 at Eden Park, just three months after his first Super Rugby game at the same ground and his new home ground after signing a three-year deal with the Blues.

"I had never heard of him before he got to the Chiefs and I don't think the Chiefs had either until they had to go and find him," said All Blacks coach Steve Hansen.

"When I say I hadn't heard of him, I mean he obviously wasn't someone who was sitting on top of our radar. We knew he had played rugby before and we knew a little about him but he wasn't someone who we said, 'let's keep a big eye on this guy because he is going to be the future'.

"His future was accelerated by the misfortune of others and he has taken the opportunity.

"Once he came in, he quickly caught everyone's eye because he has slotted in and that Chiefs scrum is strong and he's a big part of it," said Hansen.

After impressive outings against France in June, Tu'inukuafe was entrusted with a start in the All Blacks' first test after a shock loss to the Springboks, an opportunity he grabbed with both hands.

The 35-17 win in Buenos Aires turned out to be a breakout performance for Tu'inukuafe, showcasing his strengths - world-class scrummaging, running ability, natural athleticism - and potential to become the best prop on the planet.