WITH a name like Soane Tonga’uiha, the Tongan loosehead prop was always likely to be labelled with a more manageable nickname but hats off to the wag who decided that ‘Tiny’ was the appropriate moniker.
At over 20 stone and 6’3”, the 29-year is anything but and his impact with the Northampton Saints this past few seasons has matched his physical proportions.
That much was recognised this week when he was nominated for the honour of European player of the year.
It was an obvious progression for a man who took a considerable amount of time to become an overnight success but who ended last season as the club’s supporters’ player of the year while also making the shortlist for the players’ and Premiership’s polls.
Tonga’uiha’s family moved to Auckland when he was a child and his progression through the schools system in New Zealand did not go unnoticed even if he finally had to make the move to the UK to kickstart his professional career.
“He started off playing tighthead a few years back in New Zealand,” said Leinster forwards coach Jonno Gibbes. “He’s come over here and really thrived in the Northampton environment. He’s pretty deadly with the ball in hand, but he’s a pretty smart footballer too. He knows where to place himself and where to offer around the fringes and their scrum power is pretty well acknowledged. He’s pretty effective at what he does.”
Packing down opposite him this Saturday will be Mike Ross, and the Irishman is well briefed on his latest assignment after his days in England with Harlequins.
“He was there when I was there and I faced him a number of times. He was very good around the pitch even then and he was probably not seen as one of the best scrummagers around. That’s certainly not something that’s being said about him now.
“I was able to deal with him, I won’t say handily, but I was able to cope.
“A couple of seasons ago, (Harlequins) got a penalty try against them but we didn’t have (Brian) Mujati and (Dylan) Hartley against us so they had a completely different scrummaging set-up. That won’t be an issue this year from what I’ve seen of it.”
Northampton are far from a one-dimensional side — their back three alone is proof of that — but their game is founded on a dominant scrum and it will be fascinating to witness how Ross, Richardt Strauss and Cian Healy fare against them in Cardiff.
A self-confessed scrum nerd, Ross was afforded the opportunity to scribble a few more notes on Saturday afternoon when Northampton lost a fiercely physical and tight Premiership semi-final to Leicester at Welford Road.
“I did look at their semi-final and the scrum with half an eye from the couch. They’ve done what they’ve been doing all year but, in fairness to Leicester, they dealt well with it although they had (a) five-yard scrum that Northampton turned over.
“We’ve been looking at the Northampton scrum all year because I’d had half an idea that we might be meeting them.”
Maybe but Leinster have already dealt with the finest Racing Metro, Saracens, Clermont Auvergne, Leicester and Toulouse had to offer. All in all, it’s been a much tougher route to Cardiff than nine years ago when all he had to do was part with an old UCC jersey in exchange for a ticket to the Munster-Leicester tie and he feared another watching brief last Friday when he got injured against Ulster.
“It was just a stinger to the right shoulder and as a prop you can’t really hide that,” he said. “I’ll be fine for the weekend touch wood. Thankfully nothing structural was damaged, more bruising than anything else.”
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