All Blacks prop Angus Ta'avao, a big man with a big personality who is rightly earning a reputation as being quite the entertainer here in Japan, has spoken of his pride of being able to start a Rugby World Cup match alongside fellow front rower Atu Moli.
The Chiefs pair will start together against Canada at Oita Stadium on Wednesday, a combination few would have thought possible a year ago as neither seemed to be seriously on the All Blacks' radar and Moli was still recovering from a horrific leg injury; a haematoma which could have cost him a limb and his rugby career.
Moli suffered the injury after an innocuous knock while playing in the Chiefs' first game against the Crusaders in 2018, and Ta'avao told the Herald today he was next to Moli when the symptoms first appeared.
"We were right in the thick of things when he first did it," Ta'avao said. "We were supposed to be doing extras after the game and he was limping. I said 'bro, just go back into the changing room'. It happened and he had surgery.
"I've seen the work that he's put in and also the growth as a person and a rugby player. To be put in that position where you could possibly lose your leg and not play rugby again… to be out for that long and come back in a World Cup in front of some pretty big names – it's a proud moment for him and also a proud moment for me watching him."
Moli returned for the Chiefs at the start of the year following an absence of almost 12 months. Ta'avao said the work the 24-year-old put in was inspirational.
"He wasn't able to do much and got quite big. He got back into training and started small; just biking, running, and then got into the proper stuff. To seem him finish off the Super Rugby season the way he did and earn a place here is special and a testament to his character and who he represents. He says his family are proud of him and I'd say a whole lot more people are proud of him."
Moli, who has made the difficult transition from tighthead prop to loosehead, where he will start against Canada, told a big media presence in Beppu: "It's a blessing for me to be here. It's special for me and my parents and family. I didn't see this coming; all I wanted to do is get back on the field and play some footy.
"I've got heaps of friends and family sending me messages and mum and dad are coming to the game."
Ta'avao, who has played nine tests and Moli only two, will be joined by hooker Liam Coltman in the front row as the All Blacks shake things up; four days after the match they will play Namibia in Tokyo. Tyler Ardron, a Chiefs forward and Canada's captain, will be a familiar face in the opposition.
And while Ta'avao, who came on against the Boks at Yokohama and is still buzzing from the experience, is focused on his on-field performance, off the field he's proving an entertaining interviewer for All Blacks television and had no issue intervening when a phone rang on the table in front of him during today's press conference.
"We're just in a media conference, do you mind if we give you a call back in half an hour?" he said.
He told the Herald later: "Me being me, I like to jump into things and have fun. But the most important thing is balance… because in a team like this and tournament like this, if you miss your preparation then it's going to show on the field."
Love your rugby? Subscribe now to NZ Herald Premium for unlimited access to premium content, including our exclusive, first-class rugby coverage. Check out our special rugby offer here