Sport Rugby

Saturday 24 June 2017

Rising star Afeaki plans to put visiting scrum on back foot

Hugh Farrelly

JUST as Ireland flanker Rhys Ruddock has experienced an exhilarating rise to prominence in a matter of days, Maori tight-head Ben Afeaki has emerged from relative obscurity to become a key figure in the home side's pack for tomorrow's clash.

Injuries in the front-row saw the 22-year-old earn a late call-up to the Maori squad for last weekend's win over the New Zealand Barbarians, in which he produced an impressive cameo off the bench that caught the eye of coach Jamie Joseph. The North Harbour player admits he started the season with ambitions no higher than getting some game time in the Super 14, which he achieved with 11 appearances for the Chiefs. So, starting against Ireland is an unexpected honour.

"I was surprised," said Afeaki yesterday. "I was a little bit lucky with injuries in the front-row, but I'm stoked. It's definitely a different mindset (starting) and I'm a bit nervous, but I'm really keen to get out there and play a bit more than 30 minutes. It's a whole different build-up for me."

The Maori scrum struggled against the Barbarians last week and Afeaki has been brought in ahead of Clint Newlands to provide greater power at the set-piece, where he will come up against Munster's Marcus Horan.

Just short of six foot four inches and weighing in at over 20 stone, Afeaki's nickname of 'Bigs' is well deserved and while he is a noted performer in the loose, the former No 8's priority tomorrow is to target the Irish scrum.

Afeaki first sprang to prominence at the 2006 U-19 World Cup as the heaviest player in the tournament when he was a staggering 23 stone. New Zealand lost the final to Australia in a tournament where Keith Earls was part of the Ireland U-19s, but Afeaki was flagged a potential All Black and tomorrow represents a significant step towards that goal.

Props graduate to the All Blacks in their late 20s, but the elevation of the Franks brothers, Owen and Ben, to the seniors in their early 20s is encouraging for Afeaki.

But first it's Ireland and 66-cap veteran Horan, who will use all his experience to get the better of him. Horan is used to going up against physically imposing tight-heads, such as in Munster's Heineken Cup quarter-final win over Northampton, when he got the better of leviathan Scot Euan Murray, and Afeaki says scrummaging has been the focus of Maori training this week.

"It was hard for us against Barbarians because we were a new combination," said Afeaki.

"We've worked on it this week a lot and Hopefully, we're stronger for it. It's just having the time and getting the combinations right.

"I'm definitely expecting a physical game. Their set piece will be good and they'll have a lot of heart. They'll have something to prove and they'll be up for it." he said.

Irish Independent

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