Tongan powerhouse jets in

2008-03-19 00:00

EPI Taione, the massive Tongan who famously changed his name to Paddy Power at the Rugby World Cup last year, says gaining selection to the Sharks starting line-up is the greatest challenge of his rugby career.

The 1,93-metre, 123 kg Taione, flew into Durban yesterday, fresh from a season of club rugby for the Sanyo Wild Knights in Japan, and went straight to King’s Park to meet the media.

Taione, who enjoyed an excellent RWC in France last year, playing at centre for Tonga, was one of the five players on the shortlist for the IRB player of the tournament.

He is the heaviest player in the Sharks squad, and is likely to be used as a rampaging loose forward by coach Dick Muir.

“It doesn’t matter where I play. The game has changed so much. I’ve played inside centre, but in Japan I was at blindside flank and number eight. In Tonga we consider ourselves rugby players and not specialists,” Taione said.

The enthusiastic Tongan said yesterday that he is entering “the most exciting time of my rugby career with a chance to wear the shirt [Sharks jersey] that greats in rugby have worn before”.

“It’s a massive challenge and the hardest part will be getting into the team.”

He said he watched the Sharks’ five games in the Super 14 and was impressed.

“It’s going to be tougher making the Sharks side than the Tongan team for the World Cup. I hope I get a chance.”

He said that he had been in South Africa before — in 1999 — when the Tongan team was based in Johannesburg preparing for the World Cup.

“I grew up in Tonga and we support New Zealand and Australia. It might be unusual playing for the enemy, but it will be very special to be involved in the Super 14 … ”

Taione, during his career, has been around the block a couple of times and has kept bumping into Sharks players.

“I was a kid when I first signed for Newcastle and played against Rudolf Straeuli.”

Later, he was alongside former Natal players Mark Andrews and Warren Britz at Newcastle — and they subsequently advised Muir to sign the Tongan.

He has also spoken to former All Black and Sharks flyhalf Tony Brown about his move to Durban.

“He spoke of the great rugby atmosphere in Durban and said he loved this place, so I’m just excited to be here.”

He is also looking forward to playing alongside Frans Steyn — “he’s one of the most exciting young players in the world right now” — Fred Michalak and AJ Venter.

“It is going to be hard just to make the side,” he emphasised.

But Muir has no doubt that the Sharks have landed a major signing.

“He has arrived fit and raring to go. He will be a real bonus and we believe he will make a big impact.”

Muir said that Taione had been contracted as a forward and he was likely to be used as a blindside flank and number eight.

“But it will great to have him on tour because he can move between the backs and forwards.

“The Super 14 is a really intense competition and there is still a long way to go this season.

Everyone will get a turn and everyone needs to contribute,” said Muir.

There will be fierce competition at loose forward where Muir can pick from Venter, Keegan Daniel, Jacques Botes, Ryan Kankowski, Jean Deysel and Taione.

Taione is a colourful personality. He dyed his hair, and controversially changed his name to Paddy Power, for the 2007 Rugby World Cup in a team sponsorship deal with an Irish bookie, but the IRB finally torpedoed the idea.

Taione says his hobby is laughing on a regular basis. The King’s Park faithful will be hoping that the big, genial Tongan helps keep the smile on the face of Sharks’ rugby.

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