Ulster’s former Auckland Blues prop John Afoa believes Joe Schmidt wouldn’t turn his back on Leinster to return to his old club.
Schmidt was propelled to the top of the wanted list as soon as the Blues advertised the post last week on the back of a horrendous Super Rugby campaign under Pat Lam that sees them rooted to the bottom of theladder.
Schmidt spent three productive years serving as backs coach at Auckland at a time when Afoa was also on the books before packing his bags for the journey to France and a similar role with Vern Cotter’s Clermont Auvergne.
His stint on the Massif Central, where he helped Les Jaunards to a first Top 14 title, prompted Leinster’s decision to bring him to Dublin and he is now one game away from back-to-back Heineken Cup titles and with 12 months still to run on his contract.
“I always remember it was his last year and he said, ‘John, we’re going to do it next year, put the Blues on top’,” said Afoa.
“Then he signed for Clermont and he left us but I think he’s got a good set-up here and I don’t see him shooting back home any time soon.”
The ease with which Schmidt has adapted to rugby and life north of the equator has been mirrored by that of Afoa, who brought forward an agreed December arrival date by almost two months at the request of Ulster’s director of rugby David Humphries.
An explosive scrummager with a powerful running game, he ran out at Ravenhill against Clermont just three weeks after winning a World Cup medal with the All Blacks and on the back of a preceding Super Rugby campaign that stretched as far as the semi-final.
He could be forgiven for running on empty right about now but any risk of fatigue was warded off by the suspension he picked up for what was construed as a dangerous tackle on Felix Jones in the quarter-final against Munster last month — and he has yet to play since.
That aside, it has been a remarkable campaign.
Like his former Blues teammate Isa Nacewa, the 28-year-old is just another case of a Kiwi — whether player or coach — who has travelled across the world only to find in Ireland a home away from home — and it’s not because of the weather.
“No, I wouldn’t say climate but I think it’s just a good fit,” he said. “The people are very friendly, the countryside is very similar to home. It’s not overly busy. It’s not a London or a Paris where the streets are choc-a-bloc. Half an hour out of Belfast and you’re in the countryside.”
Though prodigiously gifted as an athlete — he could do a stint as an emergency hooker if required — it is his All Black mentality that perhaps serves as his greatest asset and one that complements the province’s collection of Springboks and Irish Grand Slammers.
His record in Twickenham shows four Tests against England and four wins. The only blemish a 25-18 loss to the Barbarians there in December 2009, a game he either couldn’t recall yesterday or just chose to forget.
Most of the Ulster players have been only too happy to row in with the accepted wisdom this week by talking up their underdog status but talk to Afoa and it soon becomes apparent he expects to be shining yet another medal come Sunday morning.
“It was always a possibility,” he said of getting this far. “The guys went so well last year making the quarters. The Heineken Cup was the main reason to come over and to make the final is great.
“But to win it is going to be even better. That’s what we’re focused on, winning this cup. These chances don’t come along very often. We’re here, we’ve done the hard work and now it’s just to finish it off.”
Meanwhile, Leinster and Ulster provide four of the five players on the shortlist for this season’s European Player of the Year Award. Ulster have scrum-half Ruan Pienaar and back-rower Stephen Ferris nominated, while full-back Rob Kearney and fly-half Jonathan Sexton represent the defending European champions.
The other nominee to succeed inaugural winner Sean O’Brien is Toulon’s former England fly-half Jonny Wilkinson, after he helped boot the French club into Friday’s Amlin Challenge Cup final against Biarritz.
The winner of the award will be announced next week.
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