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Afoa: 'Prop play has changed'

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'Owen Franks missing the World Cup... that highlighted how the game has grown, where you don't have any passengers'

John Afoa never expected life in the UK to turn out this handsomely. He had just turned 28 when he called it quits on the All Blacks, a winner’s medal dangling around his neck a fortnight after he had played his last Test, the 2011 quarter-final win over Argentina.  

Belfast-based Ulster, Gloucester and now Bristol have been home since then and there is no sign yet of the finishing line for the soon-to-be 36-year-old tighthead. Only last month, not long after being chosen in the Gallagher Premiership’s dream team for 2018/19, the New Zealander signed a contract extension taking him through to June 2021. One in the eye for those who feel rugby is very much becoming a younger man’s sport. 

Pushing the boundaries has become a badge of honour to Afoa. “When I left New Zealand I was part of the World Cup-winning team, but I knew I didn’t know it all,” he told RugbyPass. “Just because I was in a successful team, it doesn’t mean you know it all. A big thing that Pat (Lam) drives at Bristol and in other places I have been in is just being coachable. 

“So going up to Ulster, I learned things off Allen (Clarke) and the coaches up there about lineouts, about a different way to scrum. Going to Gloucester, we had Laurie (Fisher) at the start and did breakdown work, so I really just invested in trying to better my game.

“Like I said before, I don’t know everything. I’m not the fittest player in the world, so why can’t I get better at that? Why can’t I be better at scrums? That is having the right attitude about being coachable and not having any limits physical.”

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Still, he never fathomed he would be away from home for this long. “Definitely, when I first moved to Ulster many moons ago I was only going to go away for three years. I thought I was 28 then, by 31 I probably would be done and dusted. 

“I did three good years, had a great time, and then when Gloucester came knocking, I was like, ‘Feeling good, feeling great, I’ll go down there’. Did four years and it was quite tough at times, but in that final year, Dan Tobin was the trainer and Johan (Ackermann) the coach. I found a little bit of youth again and things were going good. 

“Then I got the call again to go down to Bristol and working with Pat, working with the trainers, medical staff, I feel like… I know people say you get better as you get older but I feel like I’m in a great place at the moment. Physically I have been challenging the limits of what a 35-, 36-year-old can do. Why can’t he be just as fit as he was when he was 20? Why can’t he be just as strong?”

In all his time in the UK, there has never been an offer for Afoa to go home and go back playing at Super Rugby level, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t tempted to leave. ‘There was a time our kids were getting a bit older, so we were half-thinking about going home and calling it quits.

“But like I said, I have been feeling amazing the last few years and I guess when you play you don’t want regrets when you finish and I think if I did finish any earlier I would always have a ‘What if? I should have kept playing’. At the moment, I’m just happy to be contributing.”

It’s quite the steeled mindset to possess in a sport where the demands now placed on a tighthead are a world away from what the nuts and bolts role used to be in the not-so-distant past. “It is harder,” he insisted.

John Afoa award

John Afoa’s form with Bristol resulted in selection on the 2018/19 Gallagher Premiership dream team for 2018/19 (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images for Premiership Rugby)

“The scrums have stayed the same but the expectation around the field is getting more and more. A very good example is Owen (Franks) missing out on the World Cup (with New Zealand). That has just highlighted how the game has grown, where you don’t have any passengers. 

“Yes, you have got to be able to do your core job well, but that is not enough any more. You have got to be able to catch and pass, you have got to be able to run lines, you have got to be able to tackle backs even if you are one-on-one. 

“That is just the way the game is going and being in the front row is the hardest because again you love a job that is traditionally a big man’s job. You have got to be able to push, you have got to be able to hold down the scrum and lift in the lineouts and then you have got to still be fit enough to run around and do everything else. It’s a tough balance.”

The impending Premiership season is currently at the forefront of Afoa’s mind, but that doesn’t mean he won’t have an enthusiastic interest in New Zealand’s bid to win a third consecutive World Cup. A few weeks after their squad was confirmed, he is still taken aback that old rival Franks, the starting tighthead in the 2011 and 2015 triumphs, was suddenly cast aside at the age of 31.

“It was (a surprise). I thought he has been the backbone of the scrum for the ABs. I’m not in the team, so I don’t really know what is going on, but just from what Steve (Hansen) has said they are looking for a more playing prop once the game opens up. 

“I’m sure it was a tough call for them but they have a way that they want to play and Owen is not in the mould at the minute. It doesn’t mean in a year’s time he could be doing it for Northampton. That is just the place he is at the moment,” he said, going on to give the All Blacks his backing win a third title on the bounce.  

“They have got a strong team and they are always going to be there or thereabouts, but I do think teams like England and Ireland, Wales and Fiji on their day maybe, there is strong enough teams there that can contest it. 

“You could see South Africa finish well, and Australia showed they could beat New Zealand. England are playing well, have got a strong squad. Eddie Jones has coached and played in Japan. He knows the craic over there and I do think they will be more wary of the struggles and the hardness of it [playing in Japan].”

Afoa has long since made his own peace with the All Blacks. There was a stretch where he didn’t consider himself a World Cup winner, having only watched the 2011 final from the Eden Park stands. But that perspective has completely changed and there will be a time in the future when the medal that is currently in storage in New Zealand will take pride of place in the Afoa household.

“It was different for me because not playing in the final is always tough,” he explained. “Initially, straight after the World Cup, say the first 12 to 18 months, people were asking how was it winning the World Cup and I always fended off saying, ‘I didn’t win it as I wasn’t part of the team’.

“As I look back now I wasn’t on the field but I still had a strong part to play prepping the team, making sure they were training well, all that kind of stuff, so as the years have gone on I got a better appreciation of what we actually achieved that year in 2011. 

“Even though only 22 players could play the whole squad of 33, 34 guys were hanging in there supporting each other,” he said before signing off with a mention of the all-important medal.

“It’s just in a box in storage. In the first few years, my wife kept it in flower box on the top of a cupboard, but now it is just in a cupboard in storage (in New Zealand). Hopefully, when I get home the kids can have more appreciation for it as well.”

WATCH: RugbyPass sits down at the Gallagher Premiership launch with Gloucester’s Johan Ackermann, Harlequins’ Paul Gustard and London Irish’s Declan Kidney 

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The English domestic season kicks off on September 20 with the Premiership Rugby Cup followed on October 18 – the weekend of the World Cup quarter-finals – with the start of the Gallagher Premiership Rugby campaign 

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'Owen Franks missing the World Cup... that highlighted how the game has grown, where you don't have any passengers'