WELLINGTON, July 26 (Reuters) - Having gone from part-time nightclub bouncer to an All Blacks jersey in a few months, prop Karl Tu’inukuafe knows a good deal more about life outside rugby than the young talents who typically travel New Zealand’s elite pathways to the big-time.
That life experience was just one of qualities that proved attractive to Tana Umaga’s Auckland Blues, who announced on Thursday that they had snapped up the 25-year-old on a three-year deal.
The Blues beat the Otago Highlanders to the signature of a player who made his international debut against France during the June tests and is regarded as one of the country’s most promising loosehead props.
But only months ago he was barely known to anyone outside of Auckland, where he played for provincial side North Harbour and supplemented his income by working for a security firm.
After being called up by Super Rugby side Waikato Chiefs after injuries gutted their front row stocks, Tu’inukuafe was so impressive that All Blacks coach Steve Hansen came calling.
Umaga, desperate to turn around the ailing Blues, hopes Tu’inukuafe can prove similarly inspiring in a Blues jumper.
“(Umaga) was just talking (to me) about experiences, I guess,” Tu’inukuafe told reporters on Thursday.
“There are a lot of young guys in the team, some of them probably haven’t had as much life experience as others, like myself.
“I didn’t really turn professional until I was 23. I guess I was living life outside of rugby before, so maybe I bring a different type of experience.”
Joining the Blues means a return home to Auckland, his birthplace and home of his wife’s family.
He will also be reunited with his North Harbour coach and close mentor Tom Coventry, who has been appointed the Blues’ forwards coach next season.
Coventry was instrumental in turning Tu’inukuafe’s fortunes around after his weight ballooned to 170 kg in 2014, prompting stern warnings from doctors.
“The turning point was definitely my health issues,” he said.
“The doctor said to lose weight. Pretty much the easiest thing I could think of was playing rugby with my brothers and my cousins, that’s why I decided to get back (to the game).”
Although sporting a handlebar moustache, a shaved head and an imposing frame common for nightclub security types, the Blues contract means he is unlikely to need to stand doors again.
“Definitely, if someone came up to me this time last year and said next year you will be an All Black, I would definitely not have believed them. (I was) standing at doors, security,” he said.
“I loved my job then but I guess now I can provide for my family and be in a healthier state than I was, so pretty happy about it.” (Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Peter Rutherford)