As one of the Chiefs’ elder statesmen, Angus Ta’avao likens his position at tighthead prop to that of an old fine wine.
Old fine wines typically taste better with time. If performance in the dark and dreaded scrums is to be a tasteful affair, then the Ta’avao wine range sits at the very top of the shelf given the showings of recent weeks.
The 31-year-old has been around the Chiefs for a long time at this point, amassing 39 caps since his arrival in 2018. The first two seasons in the Waikato were profitable, doing enough to earn All Blacks selection and journey to the Rugby World Cup.
But since then it’s been challenging, to say the least. In the last 14 months, Ta’avao has had worse luck than most on the injury front, unquestionably.
Rugby has been next to a non-event for much of that time after a rare quadricep injury in which most of the muscle connecting Ta’avao’s thigh and kneecap was completely torn off, resulting in rare surgery to stitch it all back together to give the big man his best chance of getting back on the field.
Remarkably, Ta’avao isn’t any shorter a step at this point in proceedings as he finally gets regular rugby under his belt.
Ta’avao is a character and happy to have a laugh, but the work he’s done to get himself match-ready in 2021 after continuous setbacks and surgeries has been as intense an experience that the man can remember.
“It just takes continues reps and time to get your body used to the impacts and the load of playing in this position,” Ta’avao tells RugbyPass, “I’ve been around a while and it’s true that props like me are like a fine wine because technique-wise and body-wise, you grow into it and try to get better with time”.
In 2021, Ta’avao has appeared in every Chiefs’ games thus far, coming off the bench in the season opener and starting the next three at tighthead. With Atu Moli still a fair way off his return from hip surgery, Ta’avao’s experience has been a crucial part of the Chiefs scrum that came under early scrutiny.
“We didn’t have the best start against the Highlanders and then we got taken back to school against the Crusaders,” Ta’avao said. “We’ve been building slowly and getting better each week but our big focus is scrummaging on our terms because there is a belief that we’ve got a good pack when probably a lot of people have written us off.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 6, 2021
Any lingering doubt over the Chiefs’ abilities at scrum time were put to bed during the nail-biting 15-12 victory over the Blues, with the dominance at scrum time winning numerous penalties against a forward pack featuring seven All Blacks.
The wins were massive for the Chiefs forwards and, for Ta’avao, a fitting reward for all the pack being on the same page at each and every scrum.
“We’ve jinked around some of our combinations through injury and form but our back five has been awesome and has worked really hard to get their shapes right which leaves us up front to nail our roles.”
“The most important thing is that we are all on the same page when we come to each scrum. If we need to make adjustments we will do that on the day but that ability comes from working through the week and making sure we are nailing each of our roles.”
Chiefs assistant coach Neil Barnes has been watching his senior tight head closely since returning to the Super Rugby environment, saying the progress Ta’avao has made is a key factor in how the team has turned around fortunes in the scrum.
“If you look at his progress from the Crusaders game [in week three] till now then man it’s been massive and I thought his performance against the Blues was absolute top shelf,” Barnes said.
Ta’avao initially debuted in Super Rugby for the Blues in 2012 before spending two seasons with the Waratahs in Australia. It’s with the Chiefs, however, that the tighthead has tasted the most success – and he’s hopeful that success will continue when the Chiefs travel to Dunedin on Saturday to take on the Highlanders.
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now