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Tamaiti Williams' focus on tighthead prop just the tonic NZ rugby needs

By Tom Vinicombe
(Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

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After a rock-solid introduction to Super Rugby in 2021, Tamaiti Williams is set to make a massive impact on the competition next year – and in a position where New Zealand is desperate for some new blood.

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Williams, at well over 130 kilograms and still just 21 years old, transitioned from the loose forwards to the front row during his senior high school years. While he earned all seven of his appearances for the Crusaders this season playing on the loosehead side of the scrum, that’s not where the young forward sees his future in the game.

“I’m a tighthead,” Williams, who has stopped on the side of the road between Wanaka and Christchurch to chat after a few well-deserved days away, emphatically tells RugbyPass. “I played loosehead in school and for the Canterbury Under 19s but I’m transitioning back to tighthead now.”

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Former All Blacks prop John Afoa talks all things rugby with The Offload.
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Former All Blacks prop John Afoa talks all things rugby with The Offload.

While Williams has played the majority of his provincial rugby at tighthead prop, external forces have forced him onto the left side of the scrum at various stages throughout his career.

Most recently, the foot injury suffered by first-choice loosehead Joe Moody six weeks into the Super Rugby Aotearoa season suddenly tested the Crusaders’ depth, with George Bower stepping into the starting role and Williams getting the nod ahead of the more experienced Isileli Tuungafasi as the back-up option on the bench.

“When the opportunity came up, I was told ‘Put a bit of work into this and you might get a run’ and obviously I was keen,” Williams says. “With those boys going down, I got way more time than I thought I would get.

“I kind of wasn’t expecting to get much, if any minutes this year. My goals were to just start building habits and follow what the older boys do.”

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With two All Blacks loosehead props on the books in the form of Moody and Bower, there isn’t likely to be many opportunities on that side of the Crusaders scrum next season, while the departure of Michael Alaalatoa to Leinster means there’s no obvious incumbent in the No 3 jersey.

That’s where Williams sees his future.

“I got away with playing loosehead because I’m naturally strong. Loosehead’s fun, you’re running around the pitch and you get to do all the fun stuff but I reckon tighthead, if you want to be the best, then you can be the best at tighthead.

“I want to be a tighthead and I’ve just been grafting away at that. I reckon it’s the hardest position on the field. I think you’ve got to be a lot more technical at tighthead and if your technique is even one per cent off and you can get pumped.”

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Both Oli Jager and Fletcher Newell prefer the tighthead side of the scrum but neither player is an established Super Rugby starter.

Across the country as a whole, there’s ample talent coming through at loosehead prop with established options such as Aidan Ross and Alex Hodgman missing out on All Blacks selection this year, while young guns Ethan de Groot and Ollie Norris have both shown huge promise in their limited Super Rugby showings.

The well of up-and-coming talent isn’t quite so plentiful at tighthead prop, however.

Nepo Laulala, Ofa Tuungafasi and Angus Ta’avao earned minutes for the national side in 2021 but Ian Foster has made it clear – as did his predecessor – that dynamic ball-running props will be needed for the coming years.

For a former loose forward like Williams, that should be music to his ears – not that he’s really looking ahead beyond 2022.

“I’m such a short-term operator,” he says. “If I’m thinking about the next five years, it doesn’t really work for me. Once it gets to Super, I’m fully invested in the Crusaders and then if I make Maoris, I’m fully invested in that team.

“You get feedback through the coaches. There’s always a template you want to fill: dynamic, dominant. There’s always that type of stuff. I think the coaching is quite aligned between Super and the other levels. I think [the All Blacks selectors] just feed what they want through the Super coaches.”

In the future, Williams is hopeful that he’ll be able to cover both sides of the scrum to a high standard, but the short-term focus has to be on one role.

“I’ve always kind of looked at Ofa Tuungafasi. When he’s in the ABs, he can play both sides of the scrum. I look at that as an asset.

“If the opportunity comes and the coach is like ‘Do you feel like jumping in at loosehead for a couple of weeks because we might have an injury and you might get a bit of game time there?’, I wouldn’t say no. I enjoy both but I just want to focus on being a tighthead for a bit, a couple of years, try and evolve there and maybe in the future, look to jump back and forward.”

For the moment, Williams is taking a well-deserved break after his first year as a full-time professional rugby player – one that saw him clock up more minutes for the Crusaders than he was anticipating, but fewer than he’d been hoping for with Canterbury, thanks to a run of hard-to-shake injuries.

The NPC season kicked off in the opening week of August and Williams first took the field for Canterbury a week later. From that point on, Covid and injuries kept the 21-year-old limited to just two further appearances throughout the campaign.

“I did my calf during the first lockdown [in late August], the four-week lockdown,” Williams says. “Then I came back, played against Southland and then in training I got a little hamstring grab and so I was just nursing that for a couple of weeks. Then during rehab, I got a big grab, so that put me out for another five or six weeks.

“The weeks add up pretty fast when it’s your hammy. It’s been a long road from there and I’m still coming back from another little niggle with my calf but I’m basically all good.”

While injuries are never ideal, they gave Williams some much-needed time out from the weekly rigours of professional rugby and an opportunity to step back and fine-tune his routines.

“It’s actually been a blessing,” he admits, “because I’ve never had an injury that put me out for over two weeks. I’ve had the odd shoulder thing, but you can still play with it.

“I’ve learned a lot over the last 10 to 12 weeks about my training and my rehab and my recovery. I just bought a pair of new Normatecs and try to get to the pool every day. Before, I was lifting weights every day and putting on weight but then we found out I don’t need to put on any more weight, so I moved to more metabolic conditioning-based training.”

Williams is currently sitting just north of the 140kg mark but will look to trim down a few kilos at pre-season training to be at his optimum playing weight.

Understandably, managing weight is no easy task when you’re trying to eat enough to maintain a sizeable presence on the park, but not surge over that ideal level – especially when lockdowns and injuries come into play. The current period away from the game is actually helping Williams to navigate the challenge, however, as he knows that he won’t be spending too long in camp over the coming weeks so he won’t have the opportunity to make up for any blowouts.

The break will also allow for a mental refresh, with Williams admitting he was feeling burned out from all rugby earlier in the season without yet possessing the tools to deal with the ups and downs of being a professional sportsman.

“I think it’s just finding the balance,” Williams says. “I’d wake up, think about rugby, go to sleep, think about rugby. It’s another reason why I’m just starting a clothing line. It’s been fun just to get my mind totally off rugby because once you walk out of those training doors, you need to switch off.

“Growing up and going to seminars, you hear people talk about it saying you’ve got to have the balance but at that point, all you want to do is make the team. But I think I burned myself out because everything I was doing was about rugby. If I could fit all the rugby into that window from when I walk through those doors in the morning to when I walk out in the afternoon, I wouldn’t burn out.

“A lot of things pile on if you’re not playing well or training well but when you are playing well and training well, everything’s so smooth. It’s just about building the knowledge of what to do when things aren’t going well, how to make that smooth. You’re up and down, you’re always going to have bad days and good days so it’s just learning the tools how to get back to the good days, that’s what I learned.”

Undoubtedly, Tamaiti Williams still has a long way to go – to master being a professional, to master playing at tighthead prop, and to master the highs and lows of a career in rugby. The 21-year-old clearly has all the assets needed to thrive in the modern game, however, and after a short break away, 2022 is looming as a massive year in the young prop’s career.

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