We talk to Big Ben about life in France, his weight, representing Tonga and popularity
There are several ways Ben Tameifuna could have reacted as the powers at Racing 92 stood him down from playing for being too out of shape. But as he absorbed the news of his unexpected hiatus at the start of the season, sitting in his coach’s office, something else rattled around the Tongan international’s head.
Looking back he says: “I pretty much promised myself on that day, ‘I’m never gonna get back to that 160kg bracket ever again.’”
Tameifuna is a big man. Seriously so. A hulking Hawke’s Bay product who won Super Rugby titles with the Chiefs in 2012 and 2013, he flirted with the All Blacks before jetting into the unknown of Europe – where he had never been before in his life – to take up a contract with Racing. That was in 2015, and before his wobble he racked up appearances until he was just shy of a century.
Next season Tameifuna, 28, will be in the South of France, with Bordeaux. This, of course, comes after he mounted a comeback in Paris. But before all that, just how did he get to a scales-scaring 160kg-plus?
“After the World Cup you’re just like, ‘Whoa, what a season!’, the Auckland-born tighthead explains. “We’d come off a big European season and then it floats around to the World Cup (with Tonga). To be honest, I just let my hair down (after that). I’d just gone through a big year, I was back home, I was just enjoying Mum’s cooking. There’d been a few nights out with the boys. Are you saying that when you’re back home, you wouldn’t catch up with your mates?
“To be honest, I couldn’t be bothered doing anything. Mentally, it had just been ‘rugby, rugby, rugby.’ For two or three weeks I just wanted to do nothing, because when you get back to France you know it’s going to be kicking on all over again for another nine months. And obviously, I paid the consequences. But I always knew when I was coming back that I was going to do the work, you know, no qualms about it.
“Yeah, I (made mistakes), but as a rugby player it’s about how you react to it. It’s either you drop your lip and go home and have another pizza or you get into the gym and just get stuck into it.
“When the coach sat me down and said they were concerned not just about the team, but my health as well, that sort of kicked off a bell in my head. It was like, ‘Maybe this is a bit dangerous’. But it was just about finding and retaining good habits.”
Tameifuna accepted the move, saying he knew it was best for the team. If his mates were going to back him, the least he could do was dig in for them, too. Perhaps that is a lesson learnt after a time helping his mum in her orchard job, picking fruits after school. Maybe it was from his time with the Magpies, realising that as he packed down with Hika Elliot against Super Rugby stars he’d seen on the telly, he could cut it in this game.
Tameifuna is proud of coming back, shedding until he hit a playing weight of under 150kg and hammering through the match calendar. He explains that overeating is not an issue he associates with sadness or comfort, merely a domino-line of bad habits. In lockdown he has set his approach and he has gone to work, first in France and then in New Zealand where he is now.
Sure his mother’s cooking still entices. The meal he refers to as lu – a heady mix of taro leaves, lamb, coconut and cream – a surefire pleaser. But he has got into a rhythm. In France it became a roll of waking up, doing cardio and gym, punching in some PlayStation time and then maybe another upper-body hit after lunch.
For years trainers had tried to break him, he says, but all it took was for him to land on the right scheme, adding: “It’s taken me this long, but I think I’ve found a routine that works for me.” He laughs that after a few weeks of feeling good, he thought why not keep it going. In recent weeks, this whole-hog approach has taken him to unexpected places.
“I’ve been getting into the old crossfit!,” he laughs. “It feels more rugby-specific, you know. You’re moving weights under fatigue. Just like in a game where I’ve gotta lift, I’ve gotta scrum, I’ve gotta run and move bodies, all under fatigue. So it’s the best simulation I can get.”
The son of Pacific Island immigrants, when Big Ben eventually decided to pull on the red of Tonga, he described it as a magical moment; a special mix comes from representing not only his country but his family, his culture, and importantly himself, on a bigger stage.
He has known men give up jobs, suffer time away from their loved ones for the privilege of playing for the ‘Ikale Tahi. And he certainly sees time together, speaking their mother tongue and fighting for one another as a privilege. He just hopes that as the world furiously debates a global season that more opportunities for Islanders are generated in major competitions.
Wherever he goes, though, people warm to Tameifuna. And after the set-piece work, when they see his ability on the ball, even the added flourishes, something resonates with them. How does he feel about his cult status?
“it actually makes me laugh sometimes,” he replies. “People will say stuff like, ‘For your weight you are able to run around and do this and that’, and I say thank you. I’m just me, you know! I’m one of the guys who will give anything a crack and I’m trying to be open-minded about everything.
“I guess that’s just how I am. If you told me ‘you can’t’ about something then, as I said before, I will take it as a challenge.
“All the other stuff is just fun. Don’t get me wrong, if I have the opportunity and they gave me the chance to slot a kick, I’ll put my hand up! It’s all just fun. I’ll challenge backs in kicking competitions and try fancy passing. And I enjoy other sports, like boxing – I’m sure it helps with rugby, for hand-eye coordination and moving your feet. I also did a bit of volleyball at high school.
“Once upon a time I wasn’t always this big, man!”
Fans in Bordeaux should love his energy and style of play. He obviously has the gravity. And he is willing to give up his time, saying he looks forward to having yarns with the shy, the young, the die-hards. He is a firm believer that what goes around comes around and it’s a two-way thing – if fans want to support him, he hopes to give more back on the field.
In the past we’ve seen Bordeaux players squashing grapes on the vineyards for photo ops. Asked if he would take part, Tameifuna is all for it. But adds a direct message: “If I could say one thing to Bordeaux fans – I may be big and ugly but I’m not that scary. Come say hi!”
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