The end of George Moala’s career in New Zealand leaves fans with a few loose ends that unfortunately won’t be tied up.
Ruled out for the year with a chest injury suffered in week eight of the Super Rugby season, Moala’s absence has largely flown under the radar.
While Jerome Kaino, rightly, received heaped praise last weekend when he walked off Eden Park for the final time, Moala wasn’t treated with the same esteem.
Unlike Kaino’s final effort in Auckland, the closing moments of Moala’s Blues career came with a whimper instead of a bang when he sustained the chest injury that would end his season at FMG Stadium Waikato, almost two hours from Eden Park.
The four-Test All Black and 74-time Blue has long been a polarizing figure in New Zealand rugby, and leaves for France having never really found his place or completely fulfilling his potential at the next level.
What separated Moala – when at the peak of his powers – was simply the way in which he played the game. No matter where he was playing, he only had one gear. He seemed to beat someone with each thunderous carry, often running around, but more frequently running over the opposition. An unstoppable force close to the line, the big back transformed his body into a battering ram as he barreled downfield on a weekly basis.
Though the eventual trajectory of his career – especially as a midfielder – may have been hampered by his limited distribution ability and tendency to play a one-dimensional style, it is impossible to deny Moala’s pure talent on the rugby field – and he will continue to display that talent when he joins Top 14 side Clermont next season.
The 27-year-old’s career path has been just as turbulent as his play on the field.
After rising through the ranks in the Auckland schoolboy scene while at Tamaki College, a rat-tailed 20-year-old Moala made his provincial debut for his home city in 2011. He would ultimately notch over 50 caps in the white and blue hoops of Auckland, today a rare feat for players of his calibre.
One year later, a pre-season shoulder injury looked to have ended Moala’s debut Super Rugby season before it began, but he came back and forced his way onto the field. He was a standout on the wing in his four appearances and later earned the nickname ‘Silverback’, due to his incredible strength showcased all over the park and on both sides of the ball.
Over the next two seasons Moala emerged as a genuine force in Super Rugby, crossing for ten tries and establishing himself as a regular fixture in John Kirwan’s backline as he covered the wing and both midfield positions.
Moala’s versatility may have ultimately been his downfall, as he failed to nail down a permanent home in the backline under the tutelage of three different coaches while with the Blues.
Regardless, Super Rugby and provincial form – he scored 21 tries in 32 games for Auckland between 2014 and 2016 – saw Moala earn his first All Blacks cap in July 2015. He scored the All Blacks’ lone try and kept Alesana Tuilagi in check on debut against Samoa, starting on the right wing for the national side just two months after he was discharged without conviction for his role in a late-night fight on Karangahape Road in 2012.
After missing out on a World Cup spot later that year, 2016 presented Moala with his best chance to cement himself in the All Black frame, with the midfield opening up following the departures of longtime occupants Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu.
Unfortunately, fans and selectors can only rue what could have been as form abandoned Moala. Tana Umaga dropped him in favour of Piers Francis while the combination of Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty locked down Steve Hansen’s vacant All Black midfield.
Moala would end up making his final three appearances for the All Blacks in 2016 – including a start against Wales after not being named in the initial squad – as the later emergence of young talent in the form of a well-rounded Anton Lienert-Brown, an explosive Ngani Laumape and a midfield savant in Jack Goodhue all but assured the end of his international playing days. His final international cap was a try-scoring effort in the All Blacks’ historic loss against Ireland in Chicago.
This year Moala managed just five appearances for the Blues, his fewest since his debut season. Once again he found himself in and out of Tana Umaga’s matchday side and unable to make his usual impact thanks to a constant reshuffling of personnel and a drop in form.
Though Moala’s swansong was far from a fairytale – as inconsistent performance and injury haven’t allowed him to leave New Zealand on his own terms – it’s without doubt that he leaves having made a lasting impact on Auckland rugby, regardless of whether he reached his full potential or not.
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