Nepia Fox-Matamua made a name for himself as a dynamic flanker for St Peter’s College and at ITM Cup level for Auckland, before finding his progress halted in getting into a stacked Blues back row, until he received a surprise phone call.
“I got a random phone call from former Blues and Auckland coach Pat Lam, who was coaching the Connacht province in Ireland,” Fox-Matamua said.
“He rang me up and said that they’d had an injury to one of their flankers, and he wanted to get me over immediately and play for him in Galway.”
Initially there was resistance from the Irish Rugby Union, which meant that he was unable to fly out that season, but the troubles were soon resolved.
“He came back to me not long after that, saying that he wanted to sign me for two years and I just jumped at that chance. Because it wasn’t only a chance to do something I love full time (playing rugby), but it would be an opportunity to be in Europe and travel.”
Fox-Matamua did not know too much about Ireland before arriving, though he soon found that the level of rugby was similar to what a Super Rugby player would experience in the Southern Hemisphere.
“The level of competition over there is really strong,” he said.
“I played in the Pro12, so we played against the top Irish teams, Welsh teams and even Italian teams, so it’s sort of like the Super Rugby of the Northern Hemisphere. There were also crossover games against French and English teams, so it’s a pretty high level. I really got to play the best Europe had to offer.”
His integration into the team was made a bit easier through the supervision of Lam, who had arrived two years before Fox-Matamua and was preaching a style of rugby that is sacred on this side of the world, but unfamiliar in the far north.
“We tried to play like a Southern Hemisphere side, throwing the ball around like you would down here. And while I was there we actually won the Pro12, and I mainly put it down to the style we were playing,” Fox-Matamua said.
“Connacht is probably the poorest out of the four provinces in Ireland, so we didn’t have too many super stars. But we had really strong structures and played a way that was unfamiliar to our opponents, because at the time a lot of our opponents were playing the really typical ‘kick and chase’ rugby.”
Although the team went through a period of adjustment earlier in Lam’s tenure, his demeanour and encouragement helped the players feel more comfortable, Fox-Matamua said.
“He encouraged them to play freely, to be a bit risky, like running the ball out of your own 22.”
Fox-Matamua’s time in Galway coincided with the most successful period in the club’s history, as in addition to winning the Pro12 for the first time, they defeated the prestigious London Wasps at home and also defeated a terrifically rich Toulouse team that was packed to the brim with internationals.
“One of the players I was really excited to play was Justin Tipuric, the Welsh and Lions no.7, because he’s a great player,” the 25-year-old New Zealand-born flanker said.
“Thierry Dusautoir, the former French captain, he’s one of the most awesome players that I’ve seen. He’s a guy that I’ve tried to model my game around, and to play against him was pretty cool.”
Unfortunately, Fox-Matamua was injured when Connacht claimed the Pro12 over Leinster, as he tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) after breaking the line and trying to step the fullback in a previous match.
It’s one of sport’s most severe injuries and Fox-Matamua laments that the length of his recovery has put his future playing plans on hold.
“It’s still one of the worst injuries that you can get in rugby, because that’s you gone for six months.
“Science has sped up recovery time for a lot of injuries, but not the ACL. So when I got injured I still had two months on my contract, so I’ve done a lot of rehab in the early stages when it’s most important.
“So now that I’m back in Auckland, I’m doing most of the rehab by myself, trying to keep fit. I might also look at playing sevens to keep myself in game-playing shape.”
Well-known former New Zealand broadcaster Derek Fox, who is Nepia’s grandfather, explained that the name Nepia came from his uncle, George Nepia, the iconic All Blacks fullback who starred for the team, now known as the Invincibles, in their 1924-25 tour of Britain, Ireland, France and Canada.
Fox also spoke about how Nepia was received by the fans over there and what this could mean for young Pacific rugby players in the future.
“Initially I think that the Connacht fans may not have been too happy, thinking that Lam was bringing over another foreign player instead of giving one of their local boys a go,” Fox explained.
“But then they saw him play, how fantastic he was, how hard he tackled and ran, that he wasn’t just there to get paid, and when he scored a few tries, they were happy to call him their own.
“What Nepia’s story highlights is the opportunity for young Pacific players. If they work hard, then there are opportunities for them to play in New Zealand, in Australia, in Europe or Japan.
“And there is a huge rugby following in Europe, huge crowds turn out to support the players. Pacific players should really look at this as a chance to set up their lives.”
Although Fox-Matamua leaves Rarotonga later this week, he will return next year to marry his fiancé Kate.
By then, he hopes he will be playing competitive rugby again.