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'I'm not obsessive': Life in France and what's next for Ihaia West

By Liam Heagney

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Former Maori All Black Ihaia West would have energetically leapt out of bed in La Rochelle on Saturday morning buoyed by the emphatic news from home that Hawke’s Bay had done it again, successfully defending the Ranfurly Shield for the ninth time in this current reign. The famed Log o’ Wood holds a special place in the 29-year-old’s heart. 

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West had been part of a Junior All Blacks squad at a South African World Cup but it was the Ranfurly that really accelerated his career into the big time eight years ago. Not since 1969 had the province held the symbol of glory that to this day still means so much in New Zealand rugby.  

However, with one swoosh in Dunedin – a dummy, a left-foot step, a startling burst of speed and a crowd-pleasing dive – the famine was over and a then 21-year-old red-headed Maori kid was suddenly the talk of the rugby grapevine from Napier to Invercargill and all points in between. 

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Remembering Sean Wainui and what to expect of the All Blacks on their latest tour
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Remembering Sean Wainui and what to expect of the All Blacks on their latest tour

The success-starved Bay’s glorious reign was just a solitary game as they lost the following week, but they were quick learners and the bird gang’s current run of nine successful defences is the most by any side since their run of twelve during 2014-15, an era when West was double jobbing and making his Super Rugby way with the Blues.   

I loved playing for the Magpies,” said West to RugbyPass following the completion of another day’s training with La Rochelle by the Bay of Biscay. “It’s where I grew up, the team I loved watching. My parents always took me to the games and it was always a team I wanted to be a part of. To play a number of seasons with them, to be part of some special teams that won some trophies, was awesome and it’s a team I hold really close to me.  

“There were 40-odd years where we hadn’t won it [the Ranfurly] and to bring it home was an awesome few days, probably too good as we lost it the next week and were just as disappointed as we were happy the week before. But we were lucky enough to win it the year after and hold it a bit longer. The Ranfurly Shield is a special thing for Hawke’s Bay and it is great that it still holds a big part in New Zealand rugby.”   

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Pandemic restrictions have prevented the La Rochelle-based West from visiting home since he was last there in February 2019 but that distance has only made the heart grow fonder. “Like most people in New Zealand you pick up a rugby ball before you can walk. I started playing when I was five at the Havelock North rugby club, down there on Saturday mornings. 

“You weren’t allowed to wear boots so every Saturday morning the grass was freezing, frosted over, and you were running around in your bare feet freezing and asking your mum, ‘Can I put my shoes on?’ But that is where it started for me and I have been in love with it ever since.”

Along the way, there were exotic Maori All Blacks tours to North America and Japan, as well as that incredible 2017 night at a packed Eden Park when he led the Blues in their haka before scoring the winning try to slay the travelling Lions. His Maori culture remains strong. “It’s very important to me,” he enthused. 

“We grew up around it. My mother is the principal of an all-Maori girls school so she is very much into all things Maori culture and pushing for a better life for our people. It’s very big in my family and for me as well. Being away from home and being away from it has been tough but every time I get on the phone with mum and dad, it creeps back then. It’s definitely a big part of my life.

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“We [West and wife Dannielle] haven’t been home since February 2019. It’s almost three years and it’s tough. Technology makes it a little bit easier but yeah, tough not being able to see family in person,” he said before revisiting some old rugby memories. “Maori All Blacks were another awesome team I always wanted to be a part of. We went to some pretty cool places, experienced different cultures and play some international teams. It was awesome for my development.

“And the Blues, we had a couple of pretty hard years leading up to that Lions game. Tana (Umaga) brought in the haka and to be able to do that and then to win against the Lions was just amazing. I came on in the last 20 or 30 minutes and the Lions were making it tough for us. Then Steven Luatua and Sonny Bill (Williams) did something pretty special. When Sonny has got the ball you just work as hard as your can to get off his shoulder. That was what I did and it worked out well.”

Having generated headlines around the rugby world with that game-clincher, West switched franchises rather than immediately embark on a European adventure at La Rochelle. “I went to the Hurricanes for that one year because we weren’t quite ready to go. It was something different in Wellington, but I wouldn’t change the decision we made (leaving New Zealand in 2018). I have loved my time in France. 

“Growing up in New Zealand you don’t really hear too much (of French rugby) other than the likes of Toulouse or Toulon – we were growing up with the likes of Jonny Wilkinson – and Clermont. The big clubs are what you only really hear of or see on TV back home. I didn’t really know too much about La Rochelle as a club and as a town.

“They came after me before and we had a good chat. My wife and I and my parents talked about it quite a lot and thought we wanted to stay in New Zealand, so I thought that ship had sailed but the next year they were still interested, so it was time to experience a new life, experience the other side of the world and get out of our comfort zone. It was great that La Rochelle were still interested, still believed in me to come over that next season after. 

“The city is pretty similar to Napier and Hastings, similar size, has a port, has nice beaches and good weather. But then when you talk about rugby it is crazy, everyone is behind the team and you can see by the massive crowds we get, the stadium is full and it’s just awesome to play in front of that. 

“It’s something we don’t really get back home in New Zealand. You don’t get crowds that are cheering the whole 80 minutes and full every week. It’s definitely something that I love being over here in La Rochelle. I probably could be further advanced than where I am (speaking French). I’m a little bit lazy sometimes, but I understand most of what is being said and can hold my own as well at meetings and on the field.”

How last season finished, though, left West speechless as La Rochelle were beaten in both the Champions Cup and Top 14 finals by Toulouse and his kicking featured heavily in the post-mortem. He hasn’t had much chance to exorcise his demons as a soft tissue injury meant that Sunday night’s clash at home to Toulon was just his second appearance this season (West went on to score 24 of his team’s points – including two tries – in their dominant 39-6 win).    

“These are the really frustrating ones. After a week or so you can pretty much do everything but the kicking was no good. That was the main thing. I could run and do all that stuff but it was just the kicking motion that was niggling and holding me back. I have had it before but not this bad. It’s probably about managing my load throughout the week and doing everything I can before and after sessions to make sure I’m putting my body in the best condition possible.

“You have got to embrace it [the pressure of kicking]. One week you can kick all your goals and score a number of points and the next you can miss some and lose and these are the things people pick out. They see that it goes into losing a game, which is 100 per cent right. It was a tough couple of weeks after the finals personally but you have to get back on the horse and trust the work put in. 

“I’m not obsessive. I can have a terrible day at training where nothing is working, but I’m able to cut it and go, ‘No, that is enough for the day. I can come back tomorrow and be better’. For me, I just need to be consistent each week with my prep and it will put me in the right headspace for the weekend.”

La Rochelle endured a weird start to 2021/22, losing four of their first five games with Ronan O’Gara now in full charge after Jono Gibbes left for Clermont. Fortunes have since improved with a pair of successive wins, enough to climb to seventh before this weekend’s round eight clash with Toulon, but it required tough-talking for that improvement to materialise. 

“Last year we didn’t lose this many games in a short period so the honest review had to come. Last year we only lost the odd game here and there and didn’t have to look as hard at ourselves as we did after losing four out of five early in this season. Ronan had to be hard and direct with us because we weren’t getting the results.

“He was very strong, very direct with the messages he was giving, the pictures he showed… It’s awesome having him in charge. You have to respect what he has done as a player and also as a coach, he has been around the whole world coaching. He has a lot of good ideas, instils a lot of confidence in you as an individual and as a player, so it’s awesome having him in charge.

“You definitely know he is the boss and it is his way or the highway. He has definitely taken control of the team but last year he was the boss of our attack and how we wanted to play etc, so it’s the same this year but you know he is the top dog now. We have good conversations, not only about rugby but about everything, the journey and life. Being able to talk to someone who has been and done it as a player, been part of big games and won big games, it is awesome to pick his brain whenever I can.”

For how much longer is open to speculation, though. West was linked at the start of 2021 with a move away at the end of his initial three-year La Rochelle deal but he eventually signed a twelve-month extension taking him through to July 2022. After that, who knows? 

“My wife and I love life in France and it is where we want to stay and have a number of more seasons. Whether that is in La Rochelle or elsewhere, we can hopefully have that sorted in the next few months… I just love how close everything is. You can travel. Being in New Zealand you are isolated. 

“The closest place is Australia and that is still a three-hour flight whereas here in France, there are places you can go. An hour’s flight and you’re in London or an hour-and-a-half and you’re in Spain, so the travel is awesome. And just the way people are over here is awesome too. It took a bit of getting used to but once you get the gist of how they love aperitifs in the night and things like that, it’s just a good culture to be a part of.”

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'I'm not obsessive': Life in France and what's next for Ihaia West

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