By Patrick McKendry, NZ Herald

Blues prop Karl Tu’inukuafe’s sharpness and power during his 36 second-half minutes against the Chiefs at Eden Park suggest he will be a serious handful for opposition Super Rugby teams and perhaps international teams too this year.

Tu’inukuafe put in a busy and high-impact performance against the Chiefs – he scored a rare try in a rare second-half highlight for his team in the defeat – and what made his efforts all the more remarkable was his illness last year which put him on the couch for more than two months and left his family fearing for his life.

Tu’inukuafe, who will turn 27 on February 21, contracted viral meningitis during the Blues season, an illness which caused him to have headaches and confusion. Before it was diagnosed he took a turn for the worse and had to be taken to hospital in an ambulance.

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“My wife was freaking – I didn’t know what was going on. I was confused about what I was actually doing at home,” he told Radio Sport in August last year.

“The Blues doctor told her to call an ambulance. Luckily, the doctors got through to me and fixed me up after a couple of days.”

“The doctors don’t know exactly how it came by, it was an infection, fluid on the brain,” he said.

Fortunately, Tu’inukuafe was treated successfully and returned to play for North Harbour in last year’s Mitre 10 Cup. But it meant he had little chance to add to his 13 All Black test caps collected during what for him was a sensational 2018, or make the World Cup squad.

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“It was pretty tough – I had little niggly injuries here and there and getting sick took me out for pretty much half the season,” he said this week. “There was no room for me to try to play myself in so it’s understandable. The selectors do what they have to to pick the best.”

Asked about his frustration at watching from the sidelines, he said: “Oh man I was out for 10 weeks and I wasn’t allowed to even walk fast. I got pretty unfit in that time – trying to find a way to be active without being active.

“I came back to training for the last few games but I just had to stand on the sidelines. It was hard watching the boys getting ready for games I wanted to play in. They were tough times but they’re gone now and I’m looking forward to building on something new.”

“This pre-season was a perfect turnaround after coming from the couch.”

His philosophical attitude is perhaps understandable given what could have happened.

“It wasn’t too bad, it could have gone a different way,” he said last year, adding with sandpaper-dry understatement: “Luckily it was on the side of not being fatal so I was happy about that.”

The young man with a bushy moustache quickly became a New Zealand rugby folk hero in the middle of 2018 when he was selected as a virtual unknown for the All Blacks squad to play France.

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A security guard who weighed north of 140kg at one point, Tu’inukuafe took to rugby to lose weight and progressed at an incredible rate. He was selected from the Chiefs by Steve Hansen as cover for the injured Atu Moli and Tim Perry, and, true to form was pleased that Moli was selected for the World Cup squad.

“Atu had a great season, and I was missing half the season through illness,” he said last year. “It is good they gave him a shot again because he had a terrible injury last year. To see him come back and doing so well is really good.

“Whatever is best for the team. We trust what the coaches decide to do – we’re always happy for the brothers getting in the team and doing well.”

Now big Karl is back in form and hopeful of more opportunities to return to the black jersey. One of the messages from Hansen was to attempt more work away from the set piece and if last Friday’s performance was anything to go by he’s taken it to heart.

Head coach Ian Foster and his forwards coach John Plumtree, both new to their roles this year, are like to have liked what they saw.

“I had a meeting with them like a few of the boys did,” Tu’inukuafe said. “There are some new fresh faces in the All Blacks management – I don’t know what they’re looking for but we’ll see throughout the season.”

This article first appeared in nzherald.co.nz and was republished with permission.

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