Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Regrets? Yes, I've a few, admits Afoa

World Cup winner turned down a new deal but feel he could've won trophy

Keep on running: All Black ace John Afoa gave his all to help Ulster achieve succes
Chris Farrell's heading to Grenoble.

Former All Blacks tight-head John Afoa rejected Ulster's offer of a contract extension before agreeing to join Gloucester.

The 2011 World Cup winner spent much of 2013-14 commuting between Belfast and his native New Zealand where his wife and their three children have been living since Christmas 2012.

Revealing that Ulster's Director of Rugby had been willing to allow that situation – of which many supporters were critical – to continue, Afoa told the Belfast Telegraph: "David (Humphreys) asked me to stay on. He said we'd keep the same routine, but I told him there was no chance.

"It was just too hard; I knew I couldn't do it for another month never mind another season. That's why I decided I had to go somewhere in England."

Afoa, who flies home today, admitted that the season now ending had been the straw that broke the camel's back.

He said: "Here for a few weeks, then there for two weeks at the back end of my second season made me think it would be fine for one more year.

"But it was much harder than I thought it would be. If I'd known how tough it was I probably wouldn't have gone through it.

"Half way through the season it was just starting to get tougher and tougher. Flying home, training there, then flying back here to play definitely wasn't ideal for anybody."

Nor was that the only problem in his final campaign as an Ulster player.

He explained: "I was injured for the first part of the season so it took me a while to get going.

"I fought through it and after Christmas I thought I'd started to play really well and had got a good rhythm going. But then I happened to get injured in that Sarries (Heineken Cup quarter-final) game and that was it."

As for his domestic situation when he joins his new club, Afoa explained: "The family's coming over to England to live. The kids are enrolled with school and we've got a house sorted so we'll be together as a family."

No more to-ing and fro-ing to be with his wife who never took to living in Belfast, then.

Having been a World Cup winner, the strong-as-a-bull number three admitted that he was leaving with a sense of under-achievement – and some concern as to Ulster's prospects.

"There's so many guys leaving this year – and not just older guys like me. There are a few young ones who were meant to be big stars for us who are going, too," he said.

"When I got here there were guys like Paddy (McAllister) and Chris (Farrell) who were supposed to be in the next block of boys coming through. But they got injuries and now they're on the move as well."

Both are heading for France – McAllister to Aurillac, Farrell to Grenoble.

Reflecting on the situation when he arrived from the Auckland Blues following New Zealand's autumn 2011 World Cup triumph, Afoa said: "When I got here Ulster were on an upward curve; they'd made the (PRO12) top four and they'd made the (Heineken Cup) quarters for the first time in 10 years or whatever.

"Now it could go either way. It could go up or it could go on a downward; I guess we'll not know until next year."

And although he has seen progress, Afoa's conclusion after three seasons with Ulster is that they have not fulfilled their potential.

"There has been development, but not as much as there could have been," was how the 30-year-old put it.

"This is a better team than when I joined – they're definitely winning more games.

"We've made the play-offs for the Heineken each year and we've made the PRO12 top four in the last two years," added Afoa.

"But we still haven't won anything. There have been a lot of chances to go on and win something, but we haven't taken any of them. We just don't seem to play our best rugby when we get to a play-off situation.

"We've shown that we can play well and win big games against good opposition," he pointed out. "But when it gets to the big stage you need everybody performing; everyone has to produce it in those matches. When you're playing against sides like Leinster or Sarries, seven of the team have got to be nine out of 10 and the rest have to be 10 out of 10.

"In a play-off, nothing must go wrong – you've got to be right up there or else you're never going to win."

And admitting that he was departing with a sense of disappointment in some of his own performances when it mattered, Afoa said: "In my first year here, not being able to play because I was suspended going into the Heineken Cup final meant I was probably under-done.

"The following year in the RaboDirect final I'd been carrying bad calf injuries and then I did them again in the game, so I was playing injured.

"Things like that were really frustrating for me because I thought those were our best chances to land a trophy."

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