The departure from New Zealand at the end of the season of Blues prop Karl Tu’inukuafe, the piano-playing former security guard and a front-rower whose Test debut at Eden Park will live long in the memory of most who witnessed it, brings to a close one part of a special career.
Big Karl is off to play for Montpellier in France once the Super Rugby Pacific season wraps up and he will be fondly remembered as a modern-day player from the old school – a giant of a man who took up rugby again to lose weight, found his way into the Chiefs squad and then the All Blacks not long afterwards.
Tu’inukuafe, still only 29, but hampered by illness and injury since his Test debut in 2018, including a back problem this year, will take the well-worn path to Europe in order to secure the financial future of his family and will likely receive an emotional send-off from his teammates.
The popular loosehead is as far away from an academy-raised player as you can get and his cult-figure standing, burnished by his trademark bushy moustache, probably thrived as a result.
He was an almost unknown when he was called into the All Blacks squad six years ago. But following several injuries in the squad, he found himself on the reserves bench against France and entered the fray just after halftime when Joe Moody went off.
The Test was at a critical juncture – France were leading 11-8 and the All Blacks' scrum was creaking badly, however Tu’inukuafe put the brakes on immediately, walking into a set piece and helping his side win a crucial penalty. It helped turn to the tide with the All Blacks eventually winning 52-11.
Tu’inukuafe’s contract with Montpellier will allow him to return to a country where he effectively learned his craft.
A quick improvement when he took up rugby again in 2014 led to him being a semi-professional at North Harbour before he took up a contract with Narbonne and the entry into a world very different to what he was used to.
“When we got to France, it was a huge culture shock for us seeing how rugby players lived,” he said later in an interview with RugbyPass. “I wasn’t really a full-time professional [until signing for Narbonne], so going there I was like, ‘man, I’m the man. I’m living like a king over here. Is this what being a professional is like?’
“Pretty much all we did for the whole year was just scrum, scrum, scrum. The running game for us props when I went to France was almost non-existent. We didn’t really carry. We were mostly just hitting the rucks, hitting the mauls, hitting the scrums. It almost changed my whole back because of that season. We would have a scrum session twice a day and it was just 45 minutes of non-stop live scrummaging. I used to come home, pour ice on the floor and lie on it because I couldn’t move.
“Before I went to France, I wasn’t really a scrummager. I got picked up for North Harbour because of my running ability. Then I went to France, learned how to scrum, lost my running ability and came back.”
The matter of fact Tu'inukuafe has never taken his rugby talents for granted, and that’s probably helped his popularity here - along with a sense that he's never been able to truly thrive. He’s had very little handed to him and more than his fair share of bad luck.
In 2019, he contracted viral meningitis which left him ill and confused with concussion symptoms and frightened his family. It meant two months on the sidelines.
He’s always been an underdog, and, after 24 Tests he is off to add to his remarkable story which began for most rugby followers when he was selected in the All Blacks with an official weight of 135kg. He was up around 170kg at his heaviest.
"In 2014, the doctors were telling me to lose weight," he told Stuff after his selection.
"I was complaining about pain in my legs and stuff and he was explaining that all my bad health decisions with eating was leading to a heart attack or whatever.
"When he told me to lose weight, the easiest way was to play rugby with my brothers and family.
"I'd rather do it with them on the field, than lose it by myself, so it made it easier."