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Dublin: 9 °C Thursday 25 April, 2019

'For Jared Payne, it was 10 times harder than for me' - France's gigantic Atonio

The New Zealand-born prop is an affable and laidback character.

Murray Kinsella reports from the Vale Resort

HE LOPES UP the creaking stairs at a leisurely pace, shakes our hand in typically French fashion and plants his 145kg frame into a suddenly minuscule chair that doesn’t seem capable of holding the bulk.

This is the trimmed down version of Uini Atonio.

Devin Toner and Paul O'Connell with Uini Atonio Atonio won his first France cap last year. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Sitting in France’s team hotel in the Vale Resort, the 6ft 5ins tighthead prop surprises us with his softly-spoken nature. A genuine gentle giant. He takes a while to get going, but when he does the 25-year-old is engaging, honest and possesses a disarming touch of humour.

Not that it will make the tiniest difference to Ireland’s players, who are likely to have to deal with Atonio’s power and skill in the closing quarter of Sunday’s World Cup clash in Cardiff.

A native of New Zealand himself, Atonio’s parents are both Samoan and he represented Samoa’s U20 side at the 2009 Junior World Championship.

Having come through the prestigious Wesley College in Auckland, his sheer size and a sometimes surprising ability to handle and offload made him a highly-fancied prospect. Moving into the Counties Manukau academy after school, the future looked bright.

But Atonio – whose first name is pronounced ‘Weeny’ – admits he wasn’t working hard enough on his rugby. Indeed, he was actually more focused on his concurrent employment in the world of landscaping.

I lost a contract with Counties,” says Atonio. “I just wasn’t cutting the slack and I was working on the side as well as playing rugby. I had a good job so I didn’t really take it seriously until my contract with Counties got terminated.

“I looked at other options and France was one of them. Second division, I was like ‘if it is bringing in the money and it is looking after my family, then that is good.’”

So it was that in 2011 that La Rochelle in the Pro D2 took a calculated gamble on Atonio, who weighed in at 155kg at that stage, and he moved his young family to the beautiful coastal city in the southwest of France. Not an easy transition for the big man.

“It was tough because everyone spoke French,” says Atonio with a shy smile. “As you know, French is a hard language to understand. You don’t know if they are angry with you because they are speaking really fast and really loud.

Yoann Huget, Yoann Maestri and Uini Atonio celebrate after the game Atonio (right) is typically used as an impact sub by France. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“The experience was good, it is different from New Zealand and a different type of rugby.”

Atonio’s impact on the pitch was almost instantaneous as he started 14 times in his first season and then 22 times in 2012/13. He was integral to their promotion into the Top 14 in 2014, by which time he was the club captain.

The prop explains that he gave an impassioned speech – in English – after a defeat in a Pro D2 game. Patrice Collazo, the head coach, liked what he saw and installed Atonio as his leader.

Atonio always liked an open, expansive style of running rugby from his earliest days playing the game, but he learned some tough and valuable lessons in the first couple of seasons in France.

“I still play the same way,” says Atonio, “but I have looked at my scrumming a bit because I came to France not even knowing that their scrum was a different game.

Back home in New Zealand, the scrum was the scrum. You just leaned in, but once you come to France if you’re not really in the scrum you just get pumped. That was one of the things I learned in France.”

The possibility of playing for France first arose when Atonio made a joke to the media following one of his impressive performances for La Rochelle around three years ago, still down in the Pro D2 at that point in time.

“I was like ‘I would love to play for France’,” says Atonio, “but it was never in my mind.”

Fast forward to 2014, however, and the gigantic front row had qualified to line out for les 
under international eligibility rules that state his three years living in France were sufficient.

Philippe Saint-André called him up for the November Tests that year and his debut came in a 40-15 win over Fiji. Atonio says he will feel pride every single time he wears the blue jersey of his adopted country, but he understands why others will react negatively.

“Of course there’ll always be a negative,” says Atonio. “There are a lot of guys who play in my position that are French. They played rugby since they were young and their dream was to play for France.

Sean O'Brien and Mike Ross with Uini Atonio Atonio on a bulldozing run against Ireland this year. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“There’s always going to be a negative feedback from the public or from some people who actually know the players. I think you just have to get around that and just try to carry on.”

France’s squad includes several other foreign-born players such as South African trio Bernard le Roux, Scott Spedding and Rory Kockott and Fiji native Nao Nakaitaci, but then most sides at the World Cup have taken advantage of the residency laws.

“Every other team is doing it anyway,” says Atonio, “like Jared Payne (with Ireland). He was a big, big star back home.”

Atonio believes that being a foreign-born player actually makes Test rugby all the more difficult, as they constantly have to prove a point or face the prospect of being the easiest target for criticism.

“For Jared, it was 10 times harder than for me, you know,” says Atonio. “He came to follow in Brian O’Driscoll’s boots, I just came to look after the scrum. I’m not there to be the number one.

There’s always going to be that negative side to getting into a team, I think he’s handled it well. He’s playing well, it’s easier when actions speak louder than words. If he’s playing well all the time, it makes it easier to take all the criticism.”

Atonio benefited from the current rules around eligibility, but he is actually in favour of an even more relaxed system, whereby players can change nationality after being capped at senior level.

“I think they should change it a bit, that if you don’t play more than ten Tests for one country you can change countries,” says Atonio.

“Because a couple of guys are missing out on playing for the little countries like Samoa and Tonga because they’ve played one match or two matches for the All Blacks. I think it’s unfair for them.”

Jared Payne and Iain Henderson Atonio rates Ireland centre Payne highly. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Whatever changes are to come from World Rugby, Atonio is a proud Frenchman right now and preparing himself to play some part in beating Joe Schmidt’s Ireland this weekend.

The French have won their three pool games so far, but the media and supporters at home haven’t been totally supportive of the Saint-André regime, consistently talking up Ireland’s chances ahead of the meeting in Cardiff.

“They’re really patriotic people about rugby and rugby has grown in the last five years in France,” says Atonio.

“Before, it was just football but now there’s a lot of supporters. There’s a lot more opinions, you know? Mostly the media get really deep into the heads of the players. It’s not negative, just intense at times. If you don’t have a good game, if you don’t stand out, they tend to beat you up. It’s tough.”

Saint-André’s men are likely to use it all as a motivational technique this week ahead of the Ireland fixture. Much of the criticism of them in the last four years has been based around their confused style of play.

The French seem caught somewhere between a structured, set-piece based approach and the kind of offloading, free-running style that they are traditionally known for. That latter philosophy arguably suits Atonio more, even with his size.

Philippe doesn’t criticise it if we get a good play going and get some good offloads going, like the last time we played against Ireland (in the 2015 Six Nations) in the last 10-15 minutes, when we started to play around with the ball and stuff.

“He gets into it and he likes it but we don’t actually train that stuff. It’s something you just pull out on the day. He doesn’t say it’s not good, so we will keep doing it.”

Given the talent in this France squad, it’s a daunting prospect. Atonio is likely to play an important part in any big win for les Bleus as he continues along his rugby adventure in a laidback fashion.

With that, up he pops from the intact chair and lumbers away to his next meeting.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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