A version of this story was first published in the Blues v Waratahs match programme.
It was 14 years before Ofa Tu’ungafasi knew who the All Blacks were. 10 years on, he became All Black #1150.
Ofa was born in the village of Kanolupolu on the main island of Tonga, where most rugby boys dreamt of becoming Wallabies and moving to Australia. He didn’t speak a word of English until the end of 2005 when the Tu’ungafasi family, made up of 12 children and their two parents, left Tonga bound for a new life and more opportunities in New Zealand.
“My first few years were very tough,” Ofa recalled. “I didn’t have many friends and couldn’t communicate with anyone.”
He was placed in to the top class at Mangere High School because of his maths grades after the entrance exams, but was pushed down a class every week after because he couldn’t speak English.
Ofa’s refuge was in the classroom of a fellow Tongan, Huni Fifita, who taught English at Mangere High and managed the 1st XV team.
Each Tuesday and Thursday, when the bell rang at 3pm to mark the end of the school day, Ofa would make his way to Huni’s classroom for two hours before training at 5pm.
The two would speak Tongan, read and talk sport. Huni took Ofa and his brothers under his wing and became a close family friend, so the boys returned the favour by staying true to their roots at Mangere High School – even with a number of rugby scholarship offers.
In 2008, Ofa made the Auckland Under 16 and the New Zealand Under 17 sides and was starting to receive sports scholarship offers from some of the 1A schools. But he was happy at Mangere High, captaining the 1st XV and dating Emma, the girl he would marry at the end of 2015 and the mother of his two girls, Dorothy and Alice.
“My father encouraged me to stay because of the support Huni had given us and I had already met Emma,” said Ofa. “And I didn’t know why I would sacrifice two hours of sleep to wake up early and catch a bus to school, when I could wake up at 8am and be at school by 8.30.”
After Mangere, Ofa enrolled in a Bachelor of Sport Science degree at Unitec and completed two years of study before being called in to the Blues in 2013.
For the talented and hard-working prop, coming in to the Blues was an exercise in learning.
“I was lucky to be training and learning with Chaz, Kevvie and Woody, players who’d been at the Blues a long time,” he said.
Each year with the Blues brought Ofa one-step closer to his ultimate dream: making the All Blacks. In 2015, Ofa was called in to the All Blacks’ training camp ahead of their first test against Samoa in Apia. He impressed enough to earn a spot in 2016’s squad, playing Wales in the Steinlager Series.
And finally, in the third test of the series, Ofa earned his place on the team.
“It wasn’t until I was warming up and hearing the national anthem that it all sunk in,” he said. “I was nervous, but they were excited nerves. I knew that everyone on the team has each other’s back, you just need to focus on your role.”
“Personally, I don’t think becoming an All Black has changed me,” he said. “My next goal is to continue learning, continue working hard and maintain my goal of performing well for the Blues and All Blacks.”