Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

John Afoa: I’ve made it to Ulster... now for Connacht

Afoa can’t wait to get going

Touchdown: Ulster's new prop John Afoa is welcomed at George Best City Airport by fan Rebecca Tonner

Ulster's World Cup winning prop John Afoa flew into Belfast City Airport yesterday afternoon and promptly announced his desire to play as soon as possible.

This despite having travelled for 40 hours which left him jet-lagged and understandably tired.

But already the newcomer has endeared himself to the province’s rugby fraternity, because although he has yet to don a white jersey emblazoned with the red hand, the Kiwi has come to Ulster’s rescue by arriving weeks ahead of schedule.

It was Director of Rugby David Humphreys’ SOS which saw Afoa change his plans.

The big prop’s contract was not due to kick-in until January 1 but with Jerry Cronin’s fitness now a doubt and the start of the Heineken Cup just over a week away, Humphreys told his World Cup winner that Ulster were facing a major front row problem.

Speaking minutes after disembarking, Afoa explained his arrival was much earlier than he had initially anticipated.

“Dave rang me up, we had a bit of a chat, he said we had a big game coming up and he thought it would be a good idea if I came over,” he said.

“I agreed, so I’m over here, playing Connacht on Saturday, getting some game time and then looking to play the game (against Clermont) the following week.”

With the airport busy with youngsters on their mid-term break and celebrity-spotters hoping to get a glimpse of stars jetting in for the MTV Awards on Sunday, the media interest in Afoa led a few of them to believe that he must be a music star.

They did not know who the 6ft, 18st 8lb Aucklander was, but if Ulster have called it right, they very soon will. He comes with the reputation not only as an excellent scrummager but also a very good ball-carrier around whom things happen.

“It’s great to be here. It’s my first time here so I’m excited to have a look around, catch up with a few friends and play a bit of football,” said Afoa, who described himself as being “in pretty good shape”.

It ended up being an unexpectedly rapid turn-around for Afoa. Having joined in New Zealand’s World Cup celebrations, Ulster’s urgent call saw him go home for three days and then make preparations to fly across the world.

Until such times as he is joined by his wife Theresa and their two children — three-year-old son Mateo and a one-year-old daughter Chloe — he will spend the first few weeks as a guest in the flat of his good friend and former Blues team-mate Jared Payne.

Payne unfortunately is out for the season after rupturing an Achilles tendon.

“He can make me a couple of hot meals,” joked Afoa, who revealed he cannot wait to take to the pitch.

“I want to get as much game time as I can, just get my feet on the ground and look forward to playing. It’s a new competition, a new sort of environment for me so I want to get out there and challenge myself.”

He is looking forward to facing Connacht at Ravenhill on Saturday, too.

“I’ve got a couple of old friends in that team so it’s going to be good to catch up with them and play against them,” Afoa said.

“I didn’t play much game-time during the World Cup so I’m looking forward to strapping on my boots.”

His goals as an Ulster player? “I just want to find my feet and play some good footie. Hopefully the club can do better than last year and just kick on,” he said.

With 36 Tests in the black kit of the best and most famous rugby team on the planet, it can’t have been easy to leave New Zealand where the World Cup victory celebration party is still in full swing.

“Probably will be until Christmas,” he smiled.

Asked him how difficult the decision to walk away from the All Blacks had been, he replied: “It was always going to be tough, but it had to come at some stage of my life so I was happy to do it this year. I’m just here to take everything in and play some footie.”

Afoa, who celebrated his 28th birthday on the day of the semi-final in which New Zealand beat Australia 20-6, is keen to embrace the Ulster culture and assimilate as fully and quickly as possible.

To that end he has been doing some research. But he didn’t need to dig too deep on some of his new colleagues.

“I’m looking forward to playing with Rory (Best, the Ulster hooker) – I’ve seen him play and he’s a great player – and Tom (Court, the side’s loose-head) up in the front row and some of the other guys in the loose trio,” he said.

“They’re new players to me so I want to get alongside them.”

At that he was whisked off to Ravenhill for the start of what he and Ulster hope will be a productive relationship.

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