Front-rower Uini Atonio talks pranks, pies and party guests

Downtime with… La Rochelle and France prop Uini Atonio

There’s a certain irony that the name Uini is pronounced ‘weeny’ when you consider international front-rower Atonio was the heaviest player to take part in this year’s Six Nations.

Related: Who is the heaviest player in the Six Nations?

Born in New Zealand, Atonio represented Samoa U20 at the 2009 Junior World Championship, played for Counties Manukau in the ITM Cup the following year, joined La Rochelle in 2011 and then made his France debut in November 2014 after completing his three years’ residency.

He’s become something of a cult figure in rugby and here he gives us a little more insight into his life…

What’s the best advice you’ve been given?

Never give up. I remember Tana Umaga telling me one time (at Counties Manukau) that no matter how many times you go down, always get back to your feet.

What does the France shirt mean to you?

It means a lot because it’s shaped my career. I came here as a young buck and it wasn’t really my dream to make the French team, but they gave me the opportunity I didn’t get in New Zealand, so it means quite a bit.

Who would you like to be stuck in a lift with?

Alofa Alofa (Harlequins and Samoa centre). He’s always got a good joke on him and he’s a good singer, so he could keep me entertained because I really don’t like lifts.

What are your bugbears?

Moving house. It’s the worst thing, I hate it. It’s not the emotional part, like leaving behind memories, it’s putting all your stuff into boxes and crates and then having to unpack it again.

La Rochelle and France prop Uini Atonio

Danger man: Arthur Retiere breaks in the European Challenge Cup final (Getty Images)

If you could be one of your team-mates, who would you be?

Probably Arthur Retière, the little one (the La Rochelle scrum-half who is 5ft 7in and 11st 7lb). Just the way he steps and his speed. Every time he steps, people fall over; it’s like they do it on purpose.

What’s the funniest thing you’ve seen or heard on a rugby pitch?

It always makes me laugh when a player accidentally tackles the ref. I’ve never done it myself, by the way.

Who are the jokers in the France or La Rochelle team?

There are quite a few but Levani Botia, our Fijian loose forward at La Rochelle, is probably the worst for practical jokes. Stuff like pulling your pants down when you’re not looking.

Have you been a victim of one of his practical jokes?

One time he threw a cricket ball at my balls. I was on the roller, rolling my back out, and I didn’t see it coming.

Do you have any phobias?

I’m a bit claustrophobic. I’m not a big fan of little spaces. I hate being caught in little rooms and lifts really cause a problem for me.

What’s your guilty pleasure?

I’m addicted to pies. Cheese ones, or a good bacon and egg pie.

What’s the best photo on your phone?

It’s of me and my son (Gabriel) after the Bristol game earlier this season in the Challenge Cup. He’s on my shoulders and he’s wearing a No 3 jersey, so that’s a special photo.

La Rochelle and France prop Uini Atonio

Dinner guest? Beyonce performs in South Africa earlier this year (Getty Images)

 Who would be your three dream dinner party guests?

Michael Jordan would have to be there, Pat Mahomes, the NFL guy (Kansas City Chiefs quarterback), and Beyoncé.

If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?

I’d like to read people’s minds. Then I could know what the coach is thinking.

What’s the silliest thing you’ve ever bought?

I bought a Mercedes when I was only 17. I couldn’t afford it but the coach still gave it to me because he knew I was going to make down payments with 30% interest.

I kept the car until the two back wheels popped. It cost me about 800 bucks to fix and I was on about 800 bucks (a month) at the time!

What is the best thing about living in France?

It’s everything. The rugby, the lifestyle and La Rochelle itself, which is a beautiful city to live. But I find everywhere is nice in France.

What would you like to achieve outside of rugby?

That’s a question I ask myself every day. I’d like to finish up in La Rochelle on the coaching staff. The club means so much to me.

This article originally appeared in the July 2019 edition of Rugby World magazine.

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