In the Black and White corner, weighing in at 122kgs, we have Epi Taione, the Sharks latest acquisition, fresh from his cup-winning feats with Sanyo White Knights.
Climbing off a plane from Japan where the season has finally come to a close, Epi arrived at The Absa Stadium Durban to meet a barrage of media on Tuesday.
“He has arrived fit and raring to go, it’s a real bonus and good to have him here,” said coach Dick Muir.
“It’s been a long wait from our side but we knew that worst case scenario was that he’d only come now, but we believe he will make a big impact. When we looked at contracting him, we took into consideration his commitments in Japan and he wanted to fulfill those. They did extremely well, winners of the knockout competition and runners up in the league.”
Although it is his first taste of Super Rugby, this is not the big Tongan’s first visit to South Africa – he was here with the Tongan National team, based in Jo’Burg in 1999 ahead of the World Cup.
“It’s good to be back,” he enthused. “I grew up in Tonga and because Tongans support New Zealand and Australian sides in the Super 14, it now looks like I’m playing for the enemy.
“But this is the most exciting time in my rugby career – to wear the shirt that greats in rugby have before. It’s a massive challenge for me, and the hardest will be getting into the team.”
He admits that he has kept a watchful eye on the Sharks’ progress in the competition, and believes that the challenge facing him to break into the side is, “possibly the hardest ever, maybe more so than getting into the Tongan national squad. But I’m looking forward to it and hopefully get a chance.”
His recollection of the Tongan match against the Springboks at the World Cup is that, “It was an exciting time for us and we probably caught the Boks napping. They didn’t start with their first choice side, we knew those players hadn’t played for a month, that’s why we decided to put our strongest side out. It would have made a mockery of the system if we won. I even changed my name to sponsor the team.”
Having been named one of the five finalists of the IRB Player of the Rugby World Cup, he certainly has plenty to offer the Sharks.
“We have contracted him as a forward,” explains Coach Dick Muir, “but it’s nice to have a player of his stature, it gives us an opportunity to take him on tour where guys like him, Craig Burden, Keegan Daniel and Ryan Kankowski can fluctuate between the forwards and backs, because we’ve been promoting guys being more versatile.” Muir confirmed that while Taione has also played at centre (against the Springboks at the World Cup), the Sharks will play him at 7 or 8.
“It doesn’t matter to me where I play,” says the genial giant. “The game’s changed; I’ve played inside centre, but in the knockout stages in Japan for Sanyo, I played blindside flank and eighthman.
“For me it doesn’t matter – in the modern game you never want to be seen as a specialist – I consider myself a rugby player first and foremost.”
Although he comes to the Sharks as a stranger, the Sharks are no strangers to him. Sanyo team-mate Tony Brown who previously spent a season with the Sharks and is now with the Stormers on their overseas tour had only good things to say about the Sharks.
“Tony mentioned how great the atmosphere is here, that he was in love with this place, so I have some insights. I also played with Warren Britz and Mark Andrews at Newcastle so the Sharks are not totally new to me.
“I am also looking forward to playing alongside someone like Frans Steyn, he’s one of the most exciting players in the world right now. It’s exciting to be here, to have a team-mate like Frederic Michalak who is a good player – AJ Venter too.”
He admits that although he has another year of his contract with Sanyo, he is “Finished playing in Japan.” His pregnant fiancé is with him in Durban and if he likes it here, he may well stay on past the Super 14.
Commercial Manager Rudolf Straeuli who looks after player contracts confirmed that Taione only has a Super 14 contract with the Sharks, “but if he wants to stay on and play in the Currie Cup, like Frederic, we’d be glad for them to make Durban their home.”
Hot off the presses of www.sharksrugby.co.za, written by Michael Marnewick.Tweet