Not that long ago, Atu Moli was afraid that his rugby career was about to come to a premature end.
It all started when the former New Zealand Under 20s captain took a knock to his leg when playing for the Chiefs against the Crusaders in 2018. It was a fairly innocuous injury, but it led to a massive hematoma that could have required Moli’s leg to be amputated.
Thankfully, after two weeks in hospital and four surgeries, Moli’s future prospects remained promising.
Fellow Chiefs and All Blacks prop, Angus Ta’avao, was one of the first to notice that something wasn’t quite right with Moli.
“We were supposed to be doing extras after the game [against the Crusaders] and he was limping,” Ta’avao said in Oita this week in the lead up to the All Blacks game with Canada.
“I said ‘bro, just go back into the changing room’. It happened and he had surgery.
Moli understandably wasn’t immediately back to his best, and it’s taken some fairly rigorous conditioning and training sessions to get him back up to the standards that almost earned him an All Blacks Test debut in 2017.
Ta’avao kept close tabs on the young prop throughout his recovery.
“He wasn’t able to do much and got quite big,” said Ta’avao.
“He got back into training and started small; just biking, running, and then got into the proper stuff.”
Now, however, rugby fans across the globe will finally get to see what one of the World Cup’s heaviest players is capable of.
“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.”
Wednesday’s match, which saw the All Blacks thump Canada 63-0, would have given the world just a small taste of what the hulking prop can do. Despite New Zealand including four props in their matchday squad – one specialist tighthead and three that can cover both sides of the scrum – Atu Moli was called upon to play the full 80 minutes.
It was the first time that Moli, who was a surprise inclusion in the All Blacks World Cup squad, had fronted for an entire game since his high school days at Marlborough Boys’ College.
“The coaches just said ‘go until you’re knackered’. So I went and I think I was knackered at halftime,” Moli said after the match.
“I don’t know where the other energy came from.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 2, 2019
Steve Hansen revealed after the game that the coaches had always intended for Atu Moli to play for the full 80.
Ta’avao, who started at tighthead prop, gave way for Nepo Laulala after 27 minutes. Laulala was then pulled in the 52nd minute for Ofa Tu’ungafasi.
“It was planned,” Hansen said of Ta’avao’s departure. “We wanted Atu to play the 80 minutes. We wanted to keep the other guys fresh because they have to play in four days’ time [against Namibia].”
It was an unusual run of substitutions, but Hansen’s justification is sound. Ta’avao, Laulala, Tu’ungafasi and, in all likelihood, Joe Moody will all be called upon to run out in Tokyo on Sunday – meaning that Molu will be given a well-earned break.
And how did Hansen think the 24-year-old prop faired in his first start for the All Blacks?
“We’re really pleased with Atu, he’s come a long way in a very short period. Today I think he came of age, so very happy with him. He should be proud of himself. To play 80 minutes, he proved a point to himself as well as other people.”
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