'That was bad, really bad. He turned me inside out, I got an absolute spanking'
Nearly twenty years into a career that has propelled him from Auckland to the All Blacks, the Blues to Ulster, and from Gloucester to the marauding Bristol Bears, taking in nearly 450 top-class games, John Afoa can still remember his first.
He can still feel the tension coursing through his teenage body on that cold night in Pukekohe in 2002. The notorious, steep walk down the stadium tunnel that seems to last forever. The rustic aesthetics of the venue that make the stride to the touchline feel like stepping back in time. Looking for his father in the crowd, only to find the old boy festooned in the colours of the opposition.
“My dad turned up to the game in his Counties Manukau top – it didn’t matter to him that I was playing for Auckland, he was Counties to the death,” Afoa tells RugbyPass.
“I got on early because one of the boys got injured, I was walking down the famous long tunnel, the lights on. I played the game, got the win, and that was it. I didn’t play another game until the NPC final that year.
“One of the other boys fell out of favour, and Wayne Pivac, who was our coach at the time, told me I was going to be on the bench for the semi. Honestly, I was bricking it. I didn’t get on against Canterbury, it was a tight game. The following week we played Waikato in the final, Kees Meeuws got sin-binned so I got on for 10 minutes. That was it. I tell you, it was a wild week for an 18-year-old, winning the cup.”
Afoa is a beacon of longevity in a sport that seems to grow more perilous by the season. The prop is negotiating another year’s contract at Bristol – if his wife relents – that will take him a few months short of his 39th birthday.
He is hardly clinging on either. Last season, Afoa started fourteen Premiership matches. The year before, nineteen. He will begin Friday’s seismic derby with Bath in the number three jersey, the cornerstone of Pat Lam’s gnarly pack.
And Afoa looks every inch a man joyous in his work, thriving on the game that has shaped his life. In November, he was caught on camera thundering out of the sheds for the second half of Bears’ win over Worcester, arm outstretched, mimicking Superman.
“The thing is, that’s me,” he says. “I do something stupid like that about five times a week in training. The guys weren’t shocked at all. I’ve always loved rugby, pig on it, eating out on it, watching it, playing it. I’m still running around with these 18-year-olds and doing stupid stuff.
“I remember my first year at Auckland, me and Eroni Clarke weren’t training one day because we were both injured. He was like, ‘Oh, I did my knee’.
“’When did you do that?’
“‘I think it was ’87, I went in on this tackle.’
“I was thinking, oh my god, I would have been eight or nine in 1987. And now at the age of 37, with the boys in the changing room asking me when I finished school, I’ll be like ‘cough-2001-cough’. I tell them I was already getting bits done before they were born. We’re lucky, we’ve got a young team with a sprinkling of old boys who keep everyone level-headed.”
Back then, with Clarke and Carlos Spencer and all of the heavyweights of the Auckland franchise, brutal lessons were taught. Afoa shudders as he recounts a duel with Tony Woodcock while on the cusp of becoming an All Black.
“That was bad, really bad,” he says. “It was one of those Probables v Possibles games in 2005. He turned me inside out, I got an absolute spanking, and didn’t make the Test team for the Lions series. Thanks for that, Woody.”
His back concertinaed by the rugged farmer, Afoa did crack the Test team that autumn. In all, he won 36 caps, before signing for Ulster after the 2011 World Cup.
Mention 2011 to Afoa, and the big man frowns. He made two substitute appearances at the tournament and when he arrived in Belfast to great fanfare, he felt like he hadn’t earned the honour.
“You always have this dream of playing, being on the field in the last minute, celebrating,” Afoa says. “In reality, I only played two games that totalled like 40 minutes. And then I left to go to Ulster after the tournament.
“I found it quite hard with people saying ‘World Cup winner’. I used to be quite defensive about it. I was part of a squad but I didn’t feel like I’d had a real impact on the field.
“We all had a job. Some guys played more; some supported the team. My job at that time was to support those boys. But afterwards in the changing rooms, I remember Wayne Smith and Richie McCaw mentioning to the non-playing boys how important it was. People say it all the time but they 100% meant it. When I look back, that makes it easier to take.”
The northern voyage was supposed to last three years before Afoa called it a day. But here he is, a decade later, starting in one of England’s most ferocious derbies.
Pat Lam has a lot to do with that. Afoa worked with him as a pup at Auckland and the way the great Samoan runs a ship has kept him energised.
“The way he is, he could be your best friend but when you see those frowns going, those eyebrows lifting, you’d better run for cover,” Afoa chuckles. “The rugby, it’s miles ahead. He was a new coach when I had him at Auckland. He was still very good, and we had a good team, but a lot of boys left and he had a tough year. That was it, they cut him off.
“But he has always had the potential. He is a guy that sees the game in so many different ways and is able to pick different bits out. He’s got a good support crew, he’s happy to listen to suggestions from the boys and have them help drive the team.
“We are a hard-working team, we don’t muck around. Yes, we laugh a lot, boys trying to keg each other at training, dunk each other at the gym, but when we cross onto that field, that is when we are at our best.
“We work hard, but we have so much fun. And a big driver of that is the way that Pat lets us be who we are. There is no point putting a lid on it. Even Pat cracks a few jokes which is surprising, but he’s got a bit about him. It is a good environment. And those young boys who came from Sarries, Ben Earl and Max Malins, they were maybe a little bit shocked how different it was.”
At first, Lam urged Afoa to take up a role within the club’s leadership group. Afoa said no – he’d done it before, he’d seen how it worked, and he wasn’t interested.
But Lam couldn’t leave that volume of rugby IP untapped. So instead, Afoa runs the Bears’ mentorship programme, helping to support burgeoning academy prospects, make them feel at ease in the environment, and encourage the warriors of the first team to reach out. He is the wise old sage in the background, seldom shouting, but always watching.
“Early on at the Blues, I went down to the gym one day and Carlos Spencer was in there training,” Afoa says. “We were there for an hour, didn’t speak a word. Zip. Not even like a ‘’Sup’. I was just trying not to get in his way.
“That’s maybe how rugby was back then because you had to earn your stripes, but the way it is now, one injury or Covid-19 positive, that young player could be starting. They need to be educated on how the game is played and they need to know the boys trust them.
“We have our targeted group of players who we meet or chat to, casually or formally if we want. It’s not just about rugby. That might be only half their life. It’s storytelling, really. My experiences, what works well, what might work for him, and he can pick and choose.
“The young players might get a better appreciation of how the rugby works, the pressure, handling Pat when he might be coming at you at 100 miles an hour on the field in front of 30 boys that you don’t take it personally.
“Coping with things that they can’t ask coaches themselves. I might be the middle man where I go to the coaches and say, ‘Is there anything you want this player to work on?’ On the other side, it’s a good way for senior players to really get to know the younger boys. You build a relationship because you see them regularly and make an effort to grab them, having that awareness and making that conversation.”
Bristol sit proudly atop the Premiership six games in, the fruits of skill, toil, fun and culture. Lam continues to raise the bar and the players continue to respond. Afoa would dearly love to help the Bears claim the title, or to make deep inroads into the Champions Cup, before the end inevitably dawns. In his heart of hearts, he knows the ride is almost over, but the pleasure remains as pure and gripping as ever.
“I know it’s coming to an end, for sure,” he says. “That’s just the way life is. But the enjoyment will not go away for a long time.
“I’m 37, I’m trying to hit 450 games – it’s definitely not over. I’ve been saying I’m on the last 100m for five years – it’s turned into another 1000m. I’ve pulled cramp and just walked the last bit ‘cos I’m still going.”
All hail John Afoa, the Bristol superhero who continues to laugh in the face of Father Time.
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