By Gavin Mortimer
ROMAIN TAOFIFENUA is a big lad. Just how big remains something of a mystery. According to which paper you read in France, his weight in the last few months has fluctuated between 125 kgs and 133 kgs. Then again, assuming the official Perpignan website hasn’t got a wonky set of scales, Taofifenua comes in at an eye-wateringly impressive 140kg (just over 22 stone in old money), making him in all probability the heaviest player in professional rugby. Heavier even than Sale and Ireland prop Tony Buckley, who will need to get stuck into a Lancashire hot pot or five in the next few weeks if he’s to add to his featherweight 138kgs.
Taofifenua is the latest sensation in French rugby. Included in Philippe Saint-Andre’s Six Nations squad at the weekend, the 22-year-old is an imposing figure regardless of how much he actually weighs. He stands 6ft 5in and is blessed with a deceptively soft touch for such a huge man. Against Clermont last week he scored Perpignan’s only try of the game in the 26-19 victory in what was a man of the match performance. “He possesses a physique that is outside the norm,” said Perpignan captain Nicolas Mas understatedly. “When someone as colossal as he is combines that with technical skill it’s really impressive.”
Nonetheless Taofifenua – known as ‘Tao’ to his teammates – was given a sharp lesson earlier in the season by Saint-Andre. Having made his international debut in June against Argentina, Taofifenua was omitted from the French squad for their trio of November internationals. Saint-Andre explained why earlier in the week. “Tao has played really well for Perpignan recently. He went on tour with us to Argentina in June [but] in November he hadn’t done enough work in our opinion. Since November you can see by his performances the effort he has put in. You’d have to be blind not see the difference between his performances at the start of the season and now.”
In fairness to Taofifenua he did break a hand in a pre-season friendly against Montpellier, an injury that sidelined him for the start of the season and led to his gaining a few extra kilos. He’s admitted in the past that controlling his weight is something he has to work hard at, though it’s not something that alarms him unduly. But then not much alarms Taofifenua, who spends his spare time listening to reggae. Shy and quietly-spoken, Taofifenua describes himself as “cool…I don’t suffer from stress or apprehension”.
His brother, Sebastien, two years younger and ten kilos lighter, is a promising prop who has played for Perpignan and France U20. Even he is astonished by the laid-back demeanour of his brother, telling one journalist interviewing Tao that “he won’t even read the article…he doesn’t care.”
The brothers have their father to thank for their rugby prowess. Willy Taofifenua was a stalwart in the Grenoble back-row for many years, and if the name rings a bell it might be on account of the 28-day ban he received in 1999 after laying low Edinburgh flanker Graham Dall during a spicy Heineken Cup encounter.
Willy was born in Nouméa, the capital of New Caledonia in French Polynesia, but his boys were born in France, as was their cousin, Toulouse hooker Christopher Tolofua, who was also capped on France’s summer tour to Argentina.
Tolofua hasn’t made the French squad for the Six Nations but Romain is in, thanks to Saint-Andre’s proverbial kick up the rear, but also to the influence of Welsh lock Luke Charteris. Though Charteris will miss the Six Nations because of a knee injury, he may have some indirect bearing on the tournament should Taofifenua shine for France. Charteris packed down alongside the youngster throughout the autumn and Taofifenua benefited from the experience. “Luke likes the aerial game,” explained Taofifenua in a recent interview. “He’s a runner, a tackler, he can play in the back-row. With me it’s the opposite. I run less than him but I touch the ball more.”
At the end of last year Taofifenua extended his contract with Perpignan until June 2014, a fillip for the club who were aware of the interest of usual suspects Toulon, Toulouse and Racing. He’s already being described as the French star of the 2015 World Cup, as another big French lad was for the 2007 tournament. The difference is that Taofifenua, unlike Sebastien Chabal, is a seriously good rugby player.
Follow Gavin Mortimer on Twitter @gavinmortimer7