Versatile Tuungafasi stamps credentials for starting spot

WELLINGTON (Reuters) - All Blacks prop Ofa Tuungafasi’s test career as a seemingly permanent replacement player is likely to end after strong performances for the Auckland Blues put him into contention as the best front rower in Super Rugby Aotearoa.

FILE PHOT: Rugby Union - Italy v New Zealand - Stadio Olimpico, Rome, Italy - November 24, 2018. New Zealand's Ofa Tuungafasi after the match. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

Tuungafasi has come off the bench in 31 of his 35 test matches since making his debut in 2016, often playing understudy to Owen Franks, Charlie Faumuina and latterly Nepo Laulala.

He is also a rarity in that he can play both sides of the scrum, with the positions so technically different his All Blacks team mate Angus Ta’avao described it as a right hander being forced to do tasks with their left.

That allowed coaches to have the luxury of two specialist loosehead and tighthead props in their squad alongside Tuungafasi, pigeon-holing him as the ideal replacement.

The 28-year-old, however, impressed with his strong scrummaging and dynamic workrate around the field this season.

He also produced several thundering tackles reminiscent of one hit on Bernard Foley in a Bledisloe Cup test in 2018, when the Wallabies flyhalf joked that Tuungafasi “didn’t miss” and had left half his ribcage on Lang Park.

Tuungafasi was predictably named this week in the North squad for the North-South match and is likely to start alongside All Blacks and Blues teammate Karl Tu’inukuafe in the game on Sept. 5.

His performances, however, were something that former Blues coach John Kirwan said would probably elevate him into the All Blacks starting tighthead prop role.

“I knew Ofa as a young guy and he really didn’t understand his own potential,” Kirwan told Sky Sports last month. “But now he is nailing it.

“He’s really disciplined, really good on the little things like diet and working hard off the field and he’s going to be a real force. And he keeps getting better every year.”

Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Stephen Coates