Sunday 22 April 2018

Ta’auso soul steeped in spirit of Connacht

Hugh Farrelly

THE rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain but in Galway it tends to drop on the Sportsground.

There's a different quality to the rain over there, it's the "wet rain" comedian Peter Kay talks about, the sort that seeps into your soul. It certainly takes some adjusting to.

"Oh ... the first two months after I arrived, it was just raining, raining, I couldn't believe it," Niva Ta'auso recalls with a chuckle.

"I'm a sun boy big time and I remember saying: 'Oh my gosh, what am I doing here?'. But you get used to it; well, you have to."

The burly midfielder from Samoa via New Zealand was happy with the weather on Monday when he sat down for a chat. The sun was out in earnest and the Sportsground a hive of activity as preparations continue for Friday night's Challenge Cup semi-final showdown with Top 14 pace-setters Toulon.

The giant scoreboard at the College Road end of the ground still proudly carried the score-line from last Wednesday's Magners League victory -- Connacht 27, Leinster 13.

It looked like a statement of defiance after their league campaign -- supposed to end in a winner-takes-all tussle at Ravenhill -- exploded in their faces on Sunday when Connacht's hammering at the Scarlets was compounded by Ulster leaving Edinburgh with five points and Heineken Cup qualification guaranteed.

Coach Michael Bradley and his players, after graciously congratulating the Ulstermen, sensibly chose to focus on what might be against Toulon rather than the might-have-beens of their Magners machinations with the Ravenhill mob.


Ta'auso didn't play against Leinster or the Scarlets, having injured his knee in the defeat to Munster a week previously, but is expected to line out on Friday night, a significant boost for Connacht as the 30-year-old has been an unqualified success out west.

Best known for his muscular, direct running, he is far more than merely a hit-up merchant and has the handling skills and step to do damage to any defence. Ta'auso was on message on Monday, refusing to dwell on Connacht's Sunday roasting while becoming visibly excited at the prospect of measuring himself against Toulon's glittering array of expensively acquired talent. Jonny Wilkinson, Felipe Contepomi, Sonny Bill Williams -- it's the type of challenge the big man relishes.

"I didn't watch the Ulster game, I've spent the whole time focusing on Toulon," said Ta'auso. "I heard after that it wasn't on for us in the Magners, but now it's all about winning this Friday and going through to the final.

"Going up against these guys is a big motivation. Games like this are why I came over, going up against these quality players, it's very important for me."

Manuoninive (abbreviated to Niva a few years ago to aid commentators) Ta'auso's circuitous path to the Sportsground started in St Joseph's in Samoa (where he was educated alongside Ray Ofisa) before a scholarship offer took him to the famed Wesley College in Auckland.

Wesley has a proud rugby tradition, producing All Blacks of the calibre of Casey Laulala, Stephen Donald, Sitiveni Sivivatu and, most famously, Jonah Lomu.

"I was born in Samoa and grew up there, I played for Samoa schools and Samoa U-19s but I got the offer of a scholarship to Wesley College and when I moved first it was kind of hard to adjust to the different culture but a year or two there and you settle in really well.

"That's where it all started, it's a very high level of rugby and I got an offer to play for Counties in the NPC. In my second year there we got relegated to the second division and stayed there for the next two seasons. We made it back to the top division which was a career highlight for me, but I made it to the Chiefs from the second division which very few players do so I was really pleased with that.

"When I was rung up by Connacht, I hadn't heard of them to be honest. But I knew Ray from back in St Joseph's school in Samoa and Troy Nathan who used to play for Counties and I spoke to my partner and she was pretty happy with the chance to see Ireland and now the three of us are here, we have a son who is five in June.

"It's a really nice part of the world, we really enjoy it here, we've seen a bit of the country, been to Connemara and the Cliffs of Moher and up and down to Dublin quite a bit."


Ta'auso's contract is up at the end of the season and while there are "negotiations" taking place, he prefers to dwell on the immediate challenge of Friday night. The centre is puzzled by Irish rugby's attitude to Connacht, says the bond in the squad is as good as he has experienced and believes players like John Muldoon, hooker Sean Cronin, scrum-half Frank Murphy and full-back Gavin Duffy are playing well enough to be on the Ireland team.

"We're doing really well this year. Lots of people talk about Munster and all this and all that but I don't know why people here look differently at Connacht. We are a professional rugby team, maybe we don't have the money, but it's working really well for us and hopefully we'll change the issue ourselves.

"We work on-field and off-field, we do a lot of things together off the field, playing games, competitions in mini-groups among ourselves -- darts, kicking goals, all sorts, it's just a way of bringing us together. A tight squad is very important to us.

"Guys like John, Sean, Gavin and Frank, they are really quality players that the younger guys look up to. It would be great to see them make it onto the top side (Ireland) and the way they are performing now they should be there.

"It was hard coming into a new team and trying to keep it (form) up there but it's been good. I'm just frustrated this season getting injured, all I want to do is play and play well for Connacht."

Polite and quietly spoken, there is an earnestness about Ta'auso when he talks about his adopted team which gives weight to his words and demands respect. After the initial climate change, the centre has taken to his Irish surroundings and now feels an integral part of the Connacht story -- you could say it has seeped into his soul.

Irish Independent

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