Samisoni Taukei’aho’s hero is Dane Coles. He’s also one of the players Taukei’aho wants to knock out of the All Blacks top spot at hooker.
“How good is that,” Coles chuckles. “That we you want eh,” the Hurricanes veteran and 80-test capped 35-year-old says. “That’s a great attitude.”
Taukei’aho was 2021’s bolter - brought into the All Blacks as injury cover behind Coles, Codie Taylor and Asafo Aumua, he went on to play in nine tests, eight from the bench and a starting spot against Argentina in Brisbane.
It’s a stunning rise for the 23-year-old who was spotted playing for the Tonga U15 in New Zealand in 2012 and offered a scholarship to Hamilton’s St Paul’s Collegiate for the following year.
“Coming to New Zealand was nerve wracking because I was 15 years old, a bit of a mummy’s boy and moving away from home,” Taukei’aho says.
“But it wasn’t a sacrifice because it was a decision I made, it was more an opportunity I took and I wouldn’t change a thing.”
But life in Hamilton was, to say the least, very different to his life in Tonga.
“I wasn’t really into rugby,” Taukei’aho says . “I was just a small kid,” the 115kg wrecking ball says, “and I followed the game but I wasn’t really into it.
“When I was five in Tonga I was playing with my friends and eating candy; when you’re five in New Zealand you’re playing rugby and that’s what makes New Zealand the best in the world at rugby.”
So Taukei’aho, who is now studying law at Waikato University, had a rapid rugby education at St Paul’s.
Helping with that was Paul Hodder, who was in charge of high performance and is now director of rugby at the elite college.
Taukei’aho lived with the Hodders for a year after he finished school and the pair remain tight with Hodder still helping with his skill development and providing a sounding board for more than just rugby.
“We talked at least once a week when he was away with the All Blacks and it wasn’t really about the game, it was more about what was happening in his life,” Hodder says.
Hodder, who played fullback and first five for Waikato before 10 years of premier rugby in England, is confident Taukei’aho has what it takes to be one of the All Blacks’ very best.
“Look at what he did last year and if he goes up 20 percent on that, which he will, he has the potential to be world class.”
Hodder says at school Taukei’aho was a bruiser, someone who loved the physical side of the game but had to work hard on his final skills, foot work and lineout throwing.
He did, and still is, and it is that improvement, coupled with his intelligence, that assures Hodder Taukei’aho has a long future in black.
“He said to me, ‘if you can’t improve in that (All Blacks) environment then you never will’ and it is that sort of attitude that is typical of him. He will have gone into the All Blacks looking to soak everything up and build relationships.”
Taukei’aho played for Waikato U19s in his first year out of school, the senior provincial side a year later and then the Chiefs in 2018 - helped at the time by the retirement of Liam Polwart and with Nathan Harris returning from injury.
Tonga came calling ahead of the 2019 World Cup but Taukei’aho knew by then he wanted to be an All Black and though he played for Moana Pasifika in 2020 it was always the black shirt he coveted.
“It wasn’t really a difficult decision because when I played Super Rugby I realised I wanted to be an All Black. I made up my mind in that first year with the Chiefs that I wanted a black jersey and though I was honoured to be asked to play for Tonga, I had already made up my mind.”
Taukei’aho’s tests include three in domestic matches that formed the first part of the season, then four in Australia and two on the end of year tour - against Wales and France.
That test in Paris ended in defeat but for Taukei’aho there was a special moment when he came on in the 48th minute for Coles.
“He’s an inspiration and my idol as a player,” Taukei’aho says of Coles. “He’s a tough competitor who puts the team first, who never gives up and who is a good person.”
But that respect and admiration doesn’t mask a burning desire to be the All Blacks first choice hooker.
“My initial goal for 2022 was to make the All Blacks but I have done that with nine tests, so the goal now is to get back there, but I am a really competitive person so I don’t just want to be in the squad, I want more starts and more minutes.”
The goal, very simply, he says, is “to be better than Colesy”, words that are music to the veteran’s cauliflower ears.
“He calls me grandpa,” Coles says of the man 12 years his junior. “Sami likes to play the funny man but he is dedicated, professional and driven to be the best. I’m really impressed with his attitude.”
And Coles knows what it is like to be the upstart in the All Blacks and how important it is for the senior players to encourage and support those young fellas coming through.
“I had it with Keven Mealamu and Andrew Hore. They helped me a lot and we had a great relationship but it was still competitive.
“Of course we all want to start, or at least be in the 23, but we also want to help each other get better because that’s best for the All Blacks.
“As Aaron Smith often says, if we can pass on our knowledge and make the younger guys better than we were, then we are doing our job.”