At a time when rugby needs genuine characters, Naitoa Ah Kuoi could not have timed it better
"What was the question? Was it hard leaving home? I just went on a massive rant!"
Naitoa Ah Kuoi proudly displays 'Mum' on his head-gear, his father, Ken, is his rugby hero, he speaks from the heart, sings Stevie Nicks in interviews, loves Bob Marley and paints his nails. He is pretty handy at rugby, too.
It is after midnight in Ireland but not long into a Wednesday morning in Tauranga. Ah Kuoi is sitting on the other end of a Zoom call in an Avele Golf hoodie that is one of his many treasures from 'Welly'.
The lock's third Super Rugby season is in the record books and he has relocated to Tauranga for a club rugby stint. The 22-year-old is dead-set on being an All Black, but the closest he got to the recent Test Series was giving an emotional Irish supporter a congratulatory hug after Andy Farrell's side clinched a historic victory in his home-town.
Ah Kuoi hails from the eastern suburbs of Wellington, located at the tail-end of New Zealand's North Island. He is the youngest of Frances Ah Mu and Ken Ah Kuoi's five children and 'a big mummy's boy'.
His earliest rugby memories and his first rugby hero are both connected with his club - Marist St Pat's. He would go along and watch his dad play, then the premier team and also play his own game every Saturday, from when he was five until he was 12.
"Those are the best memories I have, from when I was young," he says. "Any the guys I looked up to are the older ones that played when I was at the club, rather than anyone that played for the Hurricanes or All Blacks.
"I'd play, go straight to watch my dad play and then be the ball-boy, or do water, for the premier team. Then you'd be in the sheds with the premier team. They'd all be drinking and we'd be running around the place, playing. It was such an unreal time, and it has changed a lot since then."
His brothers and sisters played rugby, basketball and netball but he had his eyes trained on making it as a rugby professional. He played age grade rugby, lined out for Wellington College and High School, and made the New Zealand Schools set-up.
"I've always been confident in my abilities. From when I was younger, all I knew is that I was going to be a professional rugby player. When I was asked what I wanted to be, back at school, and I told them about rugby, I was told to think about university or getting jobs as that was a bit far-fetched. I just knew, though. For me, it was always a matter of 'when', not 'if'.
"That may seem a bit arrogant, but I hope not. I basically just put all my eggs in one basket, which I may not advise someone younger to do. There was no doubt in my mind that I wasn't going to do it."
He made one New Zealand U20s in 2019 but, hampered by an injury, missed out on going to the World Rugby U20 Championships. His peers are the likes of Tupou Vaa'i, Cullen Grace, Quinn Tupaea and Leicester Fainga'anuku, all of whom have gone on to represent the All Blacks.
"Never in my whole life did I ever think I'd leave Wellington," he adds. "My dream, growing up, was to play for the Wellington Lions and then play Super Rugby with the Hurricanes."
'Once I left Wellington, the world just opened up for me'
With no offer forthcoming from Hurricanes, as 2019 was winding down, Naitoa Ah Koui signed with the Chiefs for the 2020 season. It was his first time moving away from home and it was to Hamilton, a place he jokes that 'no one ever goes holidaying to'.
His partner, Kayla Rangiawha, was pregnant with the couple's twins so he was allowed to do much of his pre-season training back home. He moved out of his family home and straight in with his partner, Kayla Rangiawha, and their family.
The Chiefs won Super Rugby titles in 2012 and 2013 but only had a few of that winning squad left, including Brodie Retallick, Aaron Cruden and Sam Cane, by the time Ah Kuoi was linking up with them. Before he even arrived in Hamilton, he had plans for Retallick.
"I was like, 'Far out, I need to make my mark here'. I was thinking, 'I need to have a fight with Brodie Retallick first day! First day there's contact, I'm going to punch him in the face. I'm going to earn some respect'. I was just thinking that was the way it was.
"When I went up, though, everyone was just super nice. I just remember Pita Gus [Sowakula] coming up and started talking to me. I had never met him before and he was just chatting away. I was like, 'Holeeee'. That's just the way everyone was."
He made his professional rugby debut at the end of January, 2020. He was named on the bench for a game against Auckland Blues, at Eden Park. The attitude was 'just get me out there'.
"I had that same confidence and I knew that a lot of people there didn't know me. My name wasn't in the lights. I had only started three games for Wellington Lions and had missed out on the Under 20 World Cup. So, when I went up there, I already had a chip on my shoulder."
"I didn't feel nervous," he adds. "I felt ready... I remembering thinking [against the Blues], 'Mate, you've just got to put me on right now. I need to show you everything'. That was my mentality - I'm their guy and I'm meant to be here. That was built in me, from Wellington."
Ah Koui's Super Rugby career began with four wins from his first six games. At this stage, he was now flatting [living in an apartment] on his own, 'living how to do dishes and wash all my clothes and gear'.
Life was looking good and he was preparing for his first away trip to South Africa when the Covid-19 pandemic started hitting hard and New Zealand went into a stringent lockdown. The plan had been, initially, for Kayla and the twins - Rylee and Reegan - to come up to Hamilton but all the restrictions meant it was best for her, as a young mother, to stay home and get all the support the young family needed there.
For six weeks, Ah Kuoi moved back too and was able to enjoy all there is - sleepless nights included - about being a new father. "Kayla was trying to get me to read books about looking after babies, but they were all about having one kid," he recalls. "I was like, where are the books about twins!"
When plans were formulated for an in-country Super Rugby Aotearoa, the second row was beckoned back to Hamilton.
Stevie Nicks and post-match honesty
The 2020 Super Rugby season was scrubbed, due to the pandemic, but Super Rugby Aotearoa was keeping the (flood)lights on in a rugby-obsessed country.
Warren Gatland was the Chiefs head coach for that year but the mini tournament went badly wrong. Naitoa Ah Kuoi made his first four Chiefs starts but the team were not at the races and lost all eight of their games and finished bottom of the standings.
2021 went much better, for the Chiefs and their ever-improving young lock. Ah Kuoi started six of the eight games he featured in as the Chiefs reached the final, losing to the imperious Crusaders.
The past season was by far the busiest Ah Kuoi has been. He played 14 times for the Chiefs in a new-look Super Rugby season that has lost the Argentineans, Japanese and South African sides, but added teams from Fiji and Samoa. Only three of his Chiefs outings were as a starter but he gained a measure of social media stardom after one. He was named man-of-the-match after a win over the Rebels and delivered an interview that covered nail-painting, Stevie Nicks and Tim Horan's nickname:
"I've been watching post-match interviews for years," he says, "and I've always thought, 'Flip, why don't you just talk!'
"It's all 'Credit to the boys', all this and that. And I was thinking, 'If I ever get a post-match interview, I'm just going to talk'. I think they started talking about my nails, and I just responded as I'd normally do.
"I always said I'd be myself, and I'm glad that, when it popped off, I was showing a true version of myself. I wasn't putting on a facade or anything. For me to be open, and be myself, is something I was quite proud of. I didn't know it was going to blow up. I just felt I was having a conversation."
He only had three of his nails painted during that Stan Sports interview, but every nail has been slapped up in red, green or yellow polish by now.
"I feel like I might be the only rugby player that has," he says. "I was just thinking, 'Why not?' one day and Kayla painted a few. In my head, some other players might be looking at them, during a game or training, going, 'What the f**k?!'
"But, in the Chiefs environment, they are really open and let me be who I am. So I might be eccentric and loud but for me to have my nails painted, I wasn't nervous of what the boys or my coaches would think."
One of the most supportive players in the Chiefs set-up is Angus Ta'avao, another relaxed individual who Irish rugby fans may know more well as the prop that was red-carded for clashing heads with Garry Ringrose. "Angus talked about, one day, just saying to himself, 'F*** it, I'm just going to be me, at all times'. As long as you be yourself, you'll be okay. I look to him for talking to me about that."
'The All Blacks felt like a massive pipe-dream'
Naitoa Ah Kuoi is currently playing his club rugby with with the Bay of Plenty Steamers, along with several other Super Rugby stars. In New Zealand, if you are not involved with the Test side or earning extra coin in Japan, anyone with All Blacks ambitions does the club circuit to stay on top of their game.
The All Blacks are going through a period of change, right now. Ian Foster remains in place after the 2-1 Test Series loss to Ireland, but there have been changes in the coaching set-up, and a few playing personnel changes. 2023 is a World Cup year and, for Ah Kuoi, it is already looming large in his mind.
"When I first started footy, make it pro felt like the goal, but the All Blacks felt like a massive pipe-dream. Once my peers started making All Blacks squads, I was thinking I could really do this, too. I've always wanted to be an All Black, and that is the next goal for me."
Later in his career, as so many Kiwi players do, Ah Kuoi would love a big of rugby abroad. He fondly recalls a rare away trip, before Covid, to play the Sunwolves, in Japan, and he was blown away the the party scenes at the port of La Rochelle after they brought home the European Cup.
"I was looking at that and thinking, 'Man, I'd love to be part of something like that!'"
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