Kahn Fotuali'i is making Neath a happy valley
As Ospreys prepare for a crunch game with Leicester tomorrow, their world-class Samoan scrum-half tells Chris Hewett he's proud to be part of a team exceeding all expectations
On a truly filthy day in the Neath valley, the man who may just be the world's finest scrum-half stared at the torrential rain through the long windows of the Ospreys team room and cast his mind back seven years to another rugby life in a very different kind of valley: Fountain Valley, California. "I was just slumming around, really," said Kahn Fotuali'i. "I played for the Huntington Beach club: pure amateur stuff, but a hell of a lot of fun – and the weather was amazing, even in winter."
At that precise moment, he might have been justified in asking himself where it had all gone wrong. The rest of us are wondering where it all went right.
Born and raised in New Zealand – "I'm a typical Kiwi kid from Auckland, basically" – Fotuali'i declared himself available for Samoa in 2010 and has done more than anyone to drive the strongest of the South Sea island nations above Wales and Scotland, not to mention Argentina, in the global rankings. He has also been worth his weight in gold ingots down there in Ospreylia, helping them to an unexpected Pro12 title last season and keeping them in the Heineken Cup hunt against all predictions this time around.
Good judges place him very high indeed in the list of No 9s currently at work in international rugby. The Wallaby half-back Will Genia is often described as the best in the business, but just lately he has been broken in body and bent out of shape form-wise. Dimitri Yachvili of France? Supreme last season, but beginning to show his age now. Ruan Pienaar of South Africa? Exceptional on a good day, but prone to the occasional howler. Only two men are contesting top-dog status as we speak: Yachvili's countryman Morgan Parra of Clermont Auvergne is one; Fotuali'i is the other.
West of the Severn, they speak of him reverentially. "He's utterly outstanding for the Ospreys, game after game," said one close observer of the club this week. "I'm not sure where the team would be without him. With him, I really think they can beat Leicester this weekend."
But there is also a hint of dread in this song of praise, this rugby hosanna. "The big French clubs are bound to come after him," said the Ospreys-watcher. "He's out of contract at the end of the season and I'll be astonished if the club hangs on to him."
Fotuali'i confesses that the future is an open book. "I'm in one of my goal-setting stages at the moment and I have no clear idea of what will happen after this season," said the 30-year-old. "I definitely want to play at the next World Cup in 2015, but beyond that I haven't made any decisions. But I'm really proud to be a part of this Ospreys team: it's a privilege to be a part of a new side as it takes shape, and if we can just beat Leicester in this game, we'll give ourselves an excellent chance of qualifying for the Heineken Cup knockout phase and really push on in the tournament. That would be fantastic for the region.
"Can we do it? Why not? We certainly understand the importance of this match and what it could mean for us. We have a young squad – a lot of big-name players left just before I arrived in Wales – but sometimes big changes lead to a new identity, which leads to a fresh approach. There's an air of confidence about these young blokes that really impresses me. There's a energy and an enthusiasm about them, a determination to take ownership, not just of their individual positions but of the team as a whole. Leicester are a top-quality side, it goes without saying. But we give ourselves a big chance."
Back home in New Zealand – for all his Samoan ancestry, he has never lived in the islands, or even spent much time there – Fotuali'i slowly worked his way up the ladder, playing provincial rugby for Tasman, then a newly formed amalgam of Nelson Bays and Marlborough, in the company of the All Black wing Rico Gear and the World Cup-winning lock Brad Thorn, and for Hawke's Bay, where he lined up alongside the current silver-ferned full-back Israel Dagg. More importantly, in terms of career development, there was a successful tour of duty with Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and their mighty Crusaders. He collected a Super 14 winner's medal in 2008 and one of the runner-up variety three years later.
"That defeat in the 2011 final was pretty hard to take," he said. "We'd played the whole tournament without a home ground because of the Christchurch earthquake. To have won the title that year, after everything that had affected the people living in the area would have been something special. It was a real heartbreaker, that one."
Was he in Christchurch when the quake struck? "Yes, I was," he replied, quietly. "I was in the middle of town having lunch, as were quite a few of the Crusaders players. I think we'd just finished training. I'd sat down and ordered some food when suddenly all the tables started sliding across the floor. Then the building itself started shifting and some of the people in the restaurant dived under the tables, even though they were moving. Me? I thought it was best to get myself out of there, so I was on my feet pretty quickly.
"I was one of the lucky ones for sure: unlike a lot of people, I wasn't hurt and I didn't lose anyone close to me. All I had to do was move home to a safer part of town. It was the craziest experience, looking back, although I was completely clear-headed at the time: the adrenalin rush, I suppose. It was a terrible experience too, and that's me speaking as an Aucklander, born and bred. For the people who really called Christchurch home, it was desperate. Such a beautiful city, so badly damaged."
It was during his time with the Crusaders that Fotuali'i began to be talked about as an All Black scrum-half in waiting. With such a prize possibly within reach, why did he declare for Samoa when he did? "I never really felt it was going to happen for me with the All Blacks," explained the man some New Zealanders now describe as "the one who got away". "I suppose my ambition growing up was a twin-track one: I dreamt of being an All Black, like any Kiwi schoolkid, but the Samoan heritage runs very deep in my family. My father was born in the islands and did not leave for New Zealand until he was 25. The thing I really wanted to do was play in a World Cup, and I didn't want to let the 2011 tournament pass me by, so when it was time to make a decision we talked it through together and he told me he'd be a proud man if I made myself available for Samoa."
He does not regret his decision for a second, even though Samoa failed to fulfil themselves at the World Cup while the All Blacks reclaimed a title they had last won in 1987. "Yes, there was a feeling that we missed an opportunity in that tournament," he acknowledged. "The pool game with Wales was the one that cost us; we had two or three really important players missing for one reason or another and we lost by seven in a game we should have won. But I think we are closer now to making the most of ourselves as an international team.
"We have people in charge who are improving our structures and making it a happy environment for the players. Also, the players themselves are buying into the improvement process by being more professional. Samoans always had the strength and the talent to do well at Test level, but now we're fitter than we've ever been and it's making a big difference.
"There's been stuff in the papers about some Pacific islands teams struggling to pick their best players because of financial pressures in Europe, but it's not the case with Samoa. We're getting all of our boys on the field, and at the end of a tour there's a genuine feeling of sadness that it's over, mixed with excitement about the next time we'll meet. That tells you something. It's the sign of a happy side – and happy sides are often successful sides."
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