(Reuters) - Karl Tu’inukuafe only played around 30 minutes of the All Blacks’ 52-11 first test victory against France on Saturday, but the 25-year-old’s immediate impact ensured he was the talk of the rugby-mad country a day later.
The debutant, who did not even have a Super Rugby contract this year, came on in the 46th minute and shunted the experienced Rabah Slimani backwards so fast the All Blacks earned a scrum penalty that levelled the score at 11-11.
The effort created an immediate buzz among the crowd and his team mates with even some of the backs, who prefer to steer clear of the dark arts in the front row, racing in to congratulate the moustachioed loosehead prop.
“I was just thinking ‘we’ll see how we go’ but as soon as I felt the pressure from behind I knew where to put it, so big ups to those guys behind us,” Tu’inukuafe told reporters in Auckland.
“It was a pretty unreal feeling.”
Tu’inukuafe’s description was apt given his entire rise to international attention had an unreal feeling about it.
While a secondary school standout, he had virtually given the game away four years ago and his weight had ballooned to 170 kg and his doctor advised him to begin exercising urgently to alleviate several health problems.
He made the North Harbour provincial side in 2015 and went to France but was injured and returned to New Zealand to take a job with a security company.
An injury crisis at the Waikato Chiefs earlier this year — all of the six props originally contracted have suffered long-term injuries — necessitated his promotion into the squad.
Fortune again smiled on him late last month when Tim Perry was ruled out of the All Blacks for the France series and coach Steve Hansen called him into the squad.
Hansen half joked when he named his side for the first test with Tu’inukuafe on the bench that he had never heard of him before he began playing for the Chiefs, but said he had shown with the way he handled Slimani no-one would forget him.
“He proved that he’s off All Blacks standard and worthy of the jersey,” Hansen said. “He made a pretty big statement first up, so no better way to get the respect of your team mates and opposition.
“He’s a pretty humble big fella. There is a lot of top end in Karl, but he’s just starting so we have to make sure that we don’t blow him up by pushing him too fast, too early.”
Reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by John O'Brien