From fat to fit on road to the All Blacks for prop Tu’inukuafe

Prop Karl Tu'inukuafe, centre, in action for the Waikato Chiefs in a Super Rugby match in South Africa in May

Auckland (AFP) – Four years on from being told he was a prime candidate for a heart attack, former nightclub bouncer Karl Tu’inukuafe is 40 kilos lighter and on the verge of making his All Blacks debut.

The giant loosehead prop still has to pinch himself to make sure his whirlwind rise to the top is not a dream, while even All Blacks coach Steve Hansen was asking “Karl who?”.

There was a season in France with Narbonne and a some domestic rugby in New Zealand before a string of injuries to the Waikato Chiefs saw him promoted to Super Rugby as a fill-in prop three months ago. 

A further injury to All Black prop Tim Perry and the 25-year-old giant was rushed into the Test squad with a seat on the bench for the first Test against France in Auckland on Saturday.

“You have to do the job first and I’ll think about it later,” Tu’inukuafe said Thursday when asked how it felt to be propelled into the All Blacks spotlight. 

If it were not for the All Blacks he would most likely be at his security job this weekend.

“It was mostly a desk job but I’d get on the doors at night sometimes to get some extra money in for working at clubs and stuff,” he said when explaining his previous life. 

“From my heaviest before coming back to rugby, probably (I’ve lost) about 30, maybe 40 kilos.

“It was 2014. The doc was telling me to lose weight. I was complaining about a bit of pain in my legs and stuff and he was explaining about all the bad health decisions, like eating and stuff was just leading to a heart attack. 

“So when he told me to lose weight the easiest way was to play rugby with my brothers and my family.” 

Hansen said Tu’inukuafe’s story was proof that a player did not have to be noticed young and be put through an academy to make it to the All Blacks. 

“I’d never heard of him before he got to the Chiefs and I don’t think the Chiefs had until they had to go and find him,” Hansen said. 

“It was one of those seasons for the Chiefs where they’ve had a humongous amount of injuries, particularly at loosehead prop, and they had to go deep into the well. 

“When I say I hadn’t heard of him, I mean he wasn’t someone who was sitting on top of our radar. Obviously we knew he had played rugby before and we knew a little bit about him but he’s not someone you’d say, ‘Hey let’s keep an eye on this guy because he’s going to be the future’. 

Hansen added his progress was fastracked by others’ injuries  but said Tu’inukuafe had seized the opportunity.

“He’s raw, as you’d expect with the history he’s got, but he’s a good scrummager.”

Tu’inukuafe said that being an All Black gave him a chance to repay New Zealand for the opportunities given to his parents. 

“I was born here but my parents were born in Tonga, (and) grandparents born in Tonga, but this country gave them opportunities for a better life and to play for this jersey,  it is a huge privilege and honour to do that for what they did for my family.”