OFA TU’UNGAFASI TALKS…
The Best Foot Forward boot recycling initiative
Blues prop Ofa Tu’ungafasi played rugby in bare feet for 10 years and the first boots he ever wore were a pair he shared with an older brother for an entire season. He has no doubt the Blues Best Foot Forward initiative to recycle boots for those in need is a winner for the rugby community.
What do you think of the Blues starting the Best Foot Forward boot recycling programme?
It’s a great idea. It’s an awesome thing to do. From my experience growing up getting quality boots can be a struggle financially. Yet boots are so important to ensure players can do their roles. We look at our feet as being similar to a race car where you need good tyres to compete and do well. It’s the same with boots if you want to reach your full potential.
What was your situation with rugby boots growing up in Tonga?
I never wore boots as a kid. I saw my father playing in boots (Mofuike Tu’ungafasi was a lock who represented Tonga at the 1987 Rugby World Cup), but it wasn’t until I came to New Zealand that I finally wore them myself. My first 10 years of rugby were all about bare feet. In the islands some kids had boots but they weren’t allowed to wear them in case they injured those that didn’t have them!
What was the boot situation when you shifted to New Zealand?
I’m from a very big family with nine brothers and two sisters and my father was the sole provider so he wasn’t able to provide boots for everyone – because all the boys played rugby. When I first started playing at Mangere College in 3rd Form (Year 9) it was compulsory to wear boots and I would share an older brother’s pair because we were a similar size. My feet were slightly smaller and there was a bit of extra room for my toes, but they did the job.
When did you get your first new pair of boots?
It was at Under-15s, so when the season started I would’ve just turned 15. I still remember how excited I was when I got my own pair of new boots. We went out to the Warehouse at the airport after school and bought a pair of Slazengers for $39.99. I didn’t care about the brand or the quality. I was just excited about having my very first pair. I remember playing with the sprigs, putting them in, taking them out. Those first pair of boots lasted me two seasons and then we went back to the same Warehouse and the second pair I got were exactly the same price, but a different brand – Mitre. It wasn’t until I made the New Zealand Secondary School sides that I got a pair of boots for free. And that’s what I used when I was 17-18 years old. They lasted me for another two years.
Do you ever get given second-hand boots?
Not me, but my brother Viliami scored a pair of red and white Nike boots from (former Blues lock) Ali Williams. They were massive. He was at a Blues game and Ali gifted them to my brother’s friend. But because he was a little guy and his feet couldn’t fit them he passed them on to my big foot brother!
How will the boots being gifted via the Blues help inspire young players?
When my brother ended up with Ali Williams’ old boots you have no idea how inspired he was to get up and go to training, knowing that the pair he was wearing had come from a role model, someone he really admired. For the majority of players that’s a big reason why we love our job, being able to make a difference in the lives of a younger generation. They’re the ones coming through. When we leave from here, they’re the ones who will assume responsibility and hopefully they’re the ones who will continue giving and keep inspiring the next lot of players.
Are the players happy to tidy the boots up and help distribute them?
One hundred per cent. We’ve been doing that anyway here and there. Last year I got some of the boys to put their old boots in a box and I took them down to my club. The kids were so happy and very grateful to receive such gifts. To see their faces was quite humbling. Now it’s great that we have some structure around boot recycling and the players are all right behind it.
Do you think it’s beneficial for kids to play rugby?
Rugby has had a huge impact on my upbringing and helped make me the person I am today. The skills that I learned being in a team environment; it’s no different from a workplace, a factory or wherever. You’ve got to be able to work with a variety of people, to take in other peoples’ opinions and develop good listening and communications skills. Rugby is interesting in that each team has people from different walks of life and different backgrounds. You can’t treat everyone the same, you have to appreciate the unique skills and the various strengths everyone brings to the team. Rugby’s great for teaching strong values of team work and acceptance.
Keven Mealamu is an Ambassador for the BFF programme. Good choice?
I can’t think of anyone better. It’s a perfect fit for what we’re trying to do. I was lucky enough to play a couple of years with Kevie and what I said about rugby having a huge impact on my life I’d say Kevie has done the same thing too – not only on the field but all the off-field stuff too. I’m humbled to be walking in that guy’s footsteps.