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181kg and depressed to a pro contract in France: Kalolo Tuiloma's tale

One of the emerging stars of New Zealand rugby has agreed a move to Grenoble.

This post is part of The42′s Facing History series, supported by Cadbury Boost. To read more, click here.

WE MEET KALOLO Tuiloma the morning after he has scored a hat-trick in Counties Manukau’s Mitre 10 Cup win against Waikato.

There has been a buzz building around the 140kg tighthead prop all year, and we had been urged to keep an eye on him in the provincial game the previous night.

It quickly became apparent why the giant front row is known as ‘The Bulldozer,’ although that moniker perhaps undersells the quality of his footwork and subtle handling that go along with the sheer explosiveness he possesses.

Kalolo Tuiloma had a brilliant season for Counties Manukau. Source: Inpho/Photosport/John Cowpland

Tuiloma is a native of New Zealand but he takes pride in his Samoan roots, his parents hailing from the Pacific Island. The 26-year-old, who is getting a late start in professional rugby, wants to play at Test level eventually – be that for the Kiwis or Samoa.

There are thousands and thousands of rugby players with Polynesian roots like Tuiloma in New Zealand, particularly around the Auckland region.

His natural physical prowess makes him an exciting proposition, though he almost fell by the wayside. Rugby ended up lifting him out of a dark period in his life and the game is now giving him a chance to provide for his family.

A short time after we leave New Zealand, the affable giant signs a contract to join Bernard Jackman’s Grenoble as a medical joker until the end of the current season.

Irish director of rugby Jackman spent a week in New Zealand recently, visiting the Auckland set-up, meeting a number of players and managing to convince Tuiloma to give the Top 14 a shot.

When we sit down with Tuiloma to hear his story – before he has agreed that move to Grenoble – there has already been contact from three Super Rugby franchises eager to find out more about his background, character and ambitions. Grenoble win the race for his signature in the end.

“Rugby for me has been a big part of my life growing up, watching the All Blacks,” says Tuiloma, who looks as though he may break through the wooden chair he plants himself into. “I’ve seen how it can change an environment.

“Every Saturday you have a whole community come to your rugby games and that’s where the love of the sport grows. My parents, my family are there for that short 80 minutes and you meet a lot of people.”

Growing up in South Auckland in a big family, Tuiloma initially played with the Papatoetoe club and went on to earn selection for the Auckland Samoa U15 team as a gigantic ball-carrying back row.

He starred for the local Aorere College as a number eight, before a switch away from home and all the way down to the South Island in his final school years to join Timaru Boys’ High in South Canterbury.

There was involvement with the Samoa U20s wider training squad in 2010 and Tuiloma went on to play for the South Canterbury provincial team in the Heartland Championship, but he was in a bad place.

I didn’t make the Canterbury ITM team and that’s when I started putting on heaps of weight. I was just eating, drinking, I was pretty depressed about how I didn’t make the team.”

Just two years ago, Tuiloma was tipping the scales at 181kg, or more than 28 stone. Overweight, considering quitting rugby for good and missing home, he returned to Auckland and his parents.

“They told me, ‘Get back into rugby, don’t waste your talent.’”

Bombay Rugby Club, about 25 mins south of Papatoetoe, became Tuiloma’s new second home. Bombay coach Darryl Suasua – now in charge of Counties Manukau – could see Tuiloma’s potential, but he felt that a change of position would be beneficial.

Suasua made a call to his friend Mike Casey, who runs Front Row Factory, and told him he had a new project. Tuiloma’s conversion into a tighthead began.

Tuiloma This tighthead made 10 starts for the Steelers this season. Source: Inpho/Photosport

“Meeting Mike, that’s where it all started,” says the gentle-natured Tuiloma with a smile. “I learned the basics of scrumming, what a tighthead or loosehead does. They told me I needed to lose the weight.

“I didn’t know how technical a scrum could be and there’s more to a scrum than any other players will know. The tight five know, but there’s more than just pushing forwards and backwards! Your position, your body height, just using your body weight as well if you have it. It’s all technical.

“I started putting in the hard yards and never missed a training session with Mike. I wrote in my book every day, and they mentored me into being the player I am today.

There were several harsh lessons on the pitch, but with Casey and his business partner Keven Mealamu guiding him, Tuiloma got to grips with the tighthead position and began to thrive.

It also helped that Tuiloma has two brothers who are props. Michael, a loosehead, recently toured Uruguay with the Samoa ‘A’ side.

Kalolo helped Bombay to the Counties Manukau premier club rugby title – the McNamara Cup – in 2014 and was also part of the Counties Manukau provincial development squad, joining when he had dropped his weight down to 151kg.

Another McNamara Cup title followed in 2015, Tuiloma bulldozing over for a try in the final, and the stage was set for his first-ever professional contract this year when he joined the Counties Manukau ‘Steelers’ Mitre 10 Cup squad.

Tuiloma’s journey of redemption wasn’t without a further setback, however. The powerhouse tighthead’s sister passed away as he was rebuilding, though he eventually found a way to channel that loss into pushing himself even harder.

Kalolo Tuiloma is driven by the memory of his sister. Source: The42

“When my sister passed away, it was a big loss for me,” says Tuiloma. “I didn’t want to get distracted from rugby or get pulled away, but she has helped me push so far in this game. I reckon she has pushed me to my limits in games.

“I write her name on my wrist, and when everything gets hard for me in a game I look down at my wrist, I look at her name and I need to do more, run more, tackle harder.

“Her passing away was really sad for me and my family, but I remember one of my coaches told me, ‘Why don’t you use that as a motivation for you to get places?’

I guess I turned all the hate, the sadness, and put it all into my rugby game. It’s still hard but I take each day as it comes.”

Tuiloma’s first Mitre 10 Cup season was a major success, as he put his day job with Ward Demolition on hold.

He started 10 games at tighthead in the Steelers’ drive to a Premiership Division semi-final, scoring four tries along the way.

In August, Tuiloma and the Steelers also got a shot at the All Blacks for 40 minutes, as part of the ‘Game of Three Halves,’ whereby the national team played three 40-minute blocks against provincial teams in preparation for the Rugby Championship.

Tuiloma carried superbly and his huge hit on Julian ‘The Bus’ Savea earned him a new nickname among his Steelers teammates: ‘The Bus Stop’.

Source: The Tight Five Rugby Union/YouTube

New Zealand’s Super Rugby franchises – as well as one of the Australian sides – were watching, but so too was Jackman in Grenoble and his visit to New Zealand convinced Tuiloma to take the opportunity in France.

Tuiloma’s move will go through next month, with his partner and child set to join him in the Isère region soon after. Tuiloma’s upbringing did not involve any sort of wealth, so this chance to turn fully professional is one he deeply appreciates.

“Kalolo is one of the best prospects in New Zealand rugby,” said Jackman when Grenoble announced the seven-month signing. “He has played mostly at number eight in the past and that’s where his ability to carry the ball and make big tackles comes from.

Since becoming a prop, his progress has been huge and he was one of the stars of the Mitre 10 Cup this year. I’m delighted Kalolo has decided to join our club and that he will fight, along with the rest of the team, to keep FCG in the Top 14.”

Whether his longer-term future lies in France – underlining the slowly growing trend of players leaving New Zealand for professional contracts elsewhere – or Tuiloma ends up back home, this is unlikely to be the last we hear of him.

The frightening thing for the rest of the rugby world is that there are many more young men like Tuiloma in New Zealand waiting for their opportunities.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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