The departure from New Zealand at the end of the season of Blues stalwart Karl Tu’inukuafe, the former piano security guard and a first-time rower whose Test debut at Eden Park will long be remembered by most those who have witnessed it, brings a part of a special career to a loved one.
Big Karl will leave to play for Montpellier in France once the Super Rugby Pacific season is over and he will be fondly remembered as an old school modern player – a giant of a man who took up rugby to lose some weight, found his way into the Chiefs team and then the All Blacks shortly thereafter.
Tu’inukuafe, still just 29 but hampered by illness and injuries since his Test debut in 2018, including a back problem this year, will take the well-worn route of Europe in order to secure the financial future of his family and will likely receive an emotional sendoff from his teammates.
The popular coward is as far from an academy-raised player as it gets and his upright cult figure, browned by his characteristic bushy mustache, likely thrived as a result.
He was almost unknown when he was called up to the All Blacks squad six years ago. But following several injuries in the workforce, he found himself on the bench against France and entered the fray just after half-time when Joe Moody came off.
The test was at a critical moment – France were leading 11-8 and the All Blacks scrum squealed badly, but Tu’inukuafe immediately put the brakes on, entering a free-kick and helping his side win a crucial penalty. This helped turn the tide with the All Blacks eventually winning 52-11.
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Tu’inukuafe’s contract with Montpellier will allow him to return to a country where he actually learned his trade.
A rapid improvement when he returned to rugby in 2014 saw him play semi-professional at North Harbor before taking on a contract with Narbonne and entering a very different world to the one he was used to.
“When we arrived in France it was a huge culture shock for us to see how the rugby players lived,” he later said in an interview with RugbyPass. “I wasn’t really a full-time professional [until signing for Narbonne], so going there, I was like, ‘man, I’m the man. I live like a king here. Is that being a professional?
“Almost everything we’ve done all year has been scrum, scrum, scrum. The running game for us props when I went to France was almost non-existent. We didn’t really carry. We were mostly hitting rucks, hitting mauls, hitting scrums it almost changed my whole back because of this season we had a scrum session twice a day and it was only 45 mins of live scrum no -stop I used to come home, pour ice cream on the floor and lay on it because I couldn’t move.
“Before going to France, I wasn’t really a scrummer. I was chosen for North Harbor because of my ability to run. Then I went to France, learned to do scrum, lost my ability to run and came back.
In fact, Tu’inukuafe never took his rugby skills for granted, and that probably contributed to his popularity here – along with the feeling that he was never able to truly flourish. He had very little bad luck and more than his fair share of bad luck.
In 2019, he contracted viral meningitis which left him sick and confused with concussion symptoms and scared his family. That meant two months on the sidelines.
He was always an underdog and after 24 tests he left to add to his remarkable story which for most rugby fans began when he was selected for the All Blacks at an official weight of 135kg. He weighed around 170 kg at his heaviest.
“In 2014, the doctors were telling me to lose weight,” he told Stuff after his selection.
“I was complaining about pain in my legs and all that and he was explaining that all my bad health decisions while eating led to a heart attack or whatever.
“When he told me to lose weight, the easiest thing was to play rugby with my brothers and my family.
“I’d rather do it with them on the pitch, than lose it on my own, so that made it easier.”