Ben Tameifuna lets out a percussive chuckle when he mulls over the things people have written about him down the years, the virtual fetishizing of his immense bulk and the constant fascination with precisely how much he weighs.
Some of the stuff out there is a little unpleasant; the odd derogatory jibe poorly disguised as banter. The talk always seems to be about his shape, rather than his equally sizeable skillset.
Everyone in rugby knows of Big Ben, from his emergence at the Chiefs as a hulking young tight-head, his years with the swashbucklers of Racing 92, Tongan ventures on the Test stage and now his latest chapter at Bordeaux-Begles, who sat proudly at the summit of the Top 14 when the league was abandoned in June.
There are Tameifuna highlights reels set to thumping music where player after player is cemented, props rendered flailing roadkill by the ultimate behemoth. He is lionised for his beef, but he is also a terrific footballer with silken hands and routinely wallops over touchline goals in training.
“I don’t really care what people write,” Tameifuna told RugbyPass. “Will they run straight at me? Sometimes I look at that stuff and I laugh about it.
“Yeah, it’s true, but come and stand in front of me and say it. I really don’t care. I am what I am, take me as I am, and if you don’t like it, tough luck, there are plenty more people out there.
“If you let that get to you, you’d get into dark places, you’d get even bigger and end up retiring. And it sort of fuels me to push a bit harder, you know? I just want to add more people to the highlight reel list – nah, I’m joking!”
— Tonga Rugby Union (@officialTongaRU) September 1, 2019
A conversation with Tameifuna is laced liberally with those impish guffaws. Warmth radiates from him when he talks about team-mates and how he plays for respect and brotherhood over riches and glory. But behind that gregarious veneer sits a core of steel. At 29, Tameifuna is long enough in the tooth to appreciate what he has, and willing to confront his struggles.
In the wake of the Rugby World Cup, he went back to New Zealand yearning for a break from the game. When the big fella lets loose, he really lets loose. Tameifuna’s weight ballooned beyond 160KG on a diet of lush, home-cooked Tongan delicacies washed down generously with beer. When he reported to Racing several weeks later, the club hierarchy delivered a stark ultimatum – lose weight, or lose your jersey.
“We came off a long season, we had three weeks off before World Cup preparation, then another couple of months of smashing yourself, prepping for one of the toughest competitions in the world,” Tameifuna said.
“You’ve got to put more effort into that, I went through the World Cup, got to the end of it, and to be honest, my mental strength was… after almost 10 months straight of rugby, I blew out. I went home, I saw my family every day, I went out, enjoyed myself, had a few nights with the boys and I let go.
“I knew with all the eating I was putting on weight but when it was time to come back, I was expecting Racing to tell me I was too big. I knew once I came back that I was on a grind no matter what. I’ve had my break, the little holiday is over, now it’s time to get back on the grind and get back to playing my best footie.
“I knew personally the last two or three seasons I haven’t been at my best. I’ve been alright, but I know I can be better. When I came back, it was going to be boom, boom, boom, and so far I’ve been good. I’m down to 146KG today, which is pretty much what I was when I came to France my first season. Since the World Cup and through Covid-19 isolation, I’ve had to keep the mentality of ‘it’s still time to grind’ and time to play my best footie.”
Much of lockdown was spent heaving weights around the garage and slaving away on a Wattbike, the scourge of rugby players the world over. Tameifuna unwound on his PlayStation with his Racing pals. He would sit for hours tapping away at Call of Duty with Finn Russell, the gloriously talented Scotland fly-half who has bamboozled half of Europe with his sorcery.
“We’re usually jamming on Call of Duty,” Tameifuna said. “Sometimes it’s a bit hard with his accent what he’s trying to say in your ear! We had a few nights during isolation where we were up until like two in the morning. He’s pretty good, smart kid.
“He’s just my kind of style as a 10. A lot of 10s just stick to structure and play in this position at this place and this time. Finn plays what he sees which is what you need as a forward. You come up from a scrum, about to faint because of the pressure, and the last thing you want is to be taking a backward step.
— Simon Zebo (@SimonZebo) August 20, 2018
“He finds space – if he’s not putting himself in space, he will be putting others in space. It’s pretty good to run off Finn when he’s being that decisive, putting doubts in defenders’ minds, making them second-guess and then he finds a weak shoulder and pops you the ball. He’s a hell of a guy off the field too, always doing what is best for the team.”
There is a palpable respect between humungous prop and lithe play-maker. Tameifuna admired how Russell stuck to his convictions during the very public withering of his relationship with Gregor Townsend and ultimate exile from the Scotland squad.
“That’s another value of Finn, that he’s always backing himself and he believes in what he believes in,” Tameifuna said.
“To have someone like that on your side that has strong morals, that’s the kind of guy you want to hang around. As much as he loves his country, he stood for what he thought and what was best for him. It was unfortunate but fortunate for Racing that we got to have him for that time. It was awesome to have him.”
In Paris, there were all sorts of capers, from the howitzer shots at goal to the road trips Tameifuna and Chris Masoe would take to training in the All Black’s Smart car. As practical as the tiny vehicles are for city life, they are patently not designed to accommodate over a quarter-ton of Pacific Islands beef.
“There were a few times where Chris’ family was out of town and I was living by myself, so I would crash at his place a few nights a week,” Tameifuna said. “We thought it would be a laugh to jump in his Smart car – no point in taking two cars to training. I pretty much had my leg on his lap! It was cool, those are the enjoyable memories that I have.
“The kicks from the sideline, that’s just to keep the backs on their toes. I’ve had a few whispers of stop kicking, man, you’re bloody killing our confidence!”
— Racing 92 (@racing92) January 4, 2020
After five years at Racing, it was a wrench to leave, but the time was ripe to seek fresh pastures. In Bordeaux-Begles, Tameifuna has joined one of the continent’s premier teams coached by the truculent Christophe Urios.
“Racing were a huge part of my career, especially it being the first team I was involved with in France, and having played over 100 games for them,” Tameifuna said.
“It was hard to leave. There were needs and demands that both parties couldn’t live up to, and also for me, I needed a new challenge. For the mental side of things as well, to get out of Paris, explore a bit of France and it was tough but I think mentally as a player it was time for me to move on.”
Urios has spoken about Tameifuna’s trademark joie de vivre, but the prop is thirsting to deliver on the paddock as well as imprinting upon the club culture. There is a little more rigidity to his new side than the one he left, piloted by the brilliant young Mathieu Jalibert at fly-half. His debut off the bench against Edinburgh in Saturday’s Challenge Cup quarter-final win was eventful – a couple of wounding rumbles, a cynical infringement that earned him a yellow card.
Traditionally, French teams have treated Europe’s second-tier tournament as something of an inconvenience, but Urios and Bordeaux-Begles are gunning for the trophy. And they will need to turn it on in the last four, what with a trip to Ashton Gate and a date with their old chum Semi Radradra, who recently left for Bristol Bears, next Friday.
“We’ve got two different kinds of fly-half. Mathieu plays what he sees, but with the French background it’s all about structure,” Tameifuna said. “Ben Botica, our other 10, is a Kiwi so he picked up a ball real early as a kid, but in France they are always going to pick who they favour.
“It’s something that we’ve got to adapt to, the two 10s and how they play and run the team. I think it’s a good thing. If we can start off being structured and when it starts to open up later on, Ben comes on and finds a bit more space. It all depends on the 10s and the two styles. We haven’t played many games yet, so you want to see guys when pressure is on, who is going to front up and who is going to roll over.
“I’m all about winning. I’m not going to go out there to break my leg to lose. Hopefully it’s a last tackle to save a try in the 80th minute and I go down smiling!”
In a Smart car, on the PlayStation or scrummaging against Bristol’s finest, the chances are that Tameifuna will be sporting a grin as broad as the Seine.
Legs day!! pic.twitter.com/0NXIS6L6wk
— Ben Tameifuna (@ben_tameifuna) August 1, 2018
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now