Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Taione is in Town

After weeks of being missing in action in Japanese club rugby, the Sharks' much-anticipated Tongan signing, Epi Taione, is finally in Durban in the flesh, and quite a mountain of it there is too.In fact, there is not just one of him but three, in a manner of speaking. He has brought his heavily pregnant wife and in a month or so we could quite possibly have the first Tongan baby born with a South African passport.Taione was on show to the media in the Sharks' boardroom at the Absa Stadium on Tuesday and at 1.93m (six foot four) and 123 kgs, the relaxed, wise-cracking 29-year-old was literally no shrinking violet.

Taione is certainly a man of the rugby world, having played at a host of European clubs since leaving Tonga as a youngster, and he lit up the Rugby World Cup in France when he dyed his hair green and changed his name by deed poll to Paddy Power to give mileage to the Irish bookies that sponsored the impoverished islanders. The humourless IRB ordered him to take the dye out of his hair before the Pool match against South Africa and refused to acknowledge his change in name, and "Epeli Taione" is what appeared in the match programme.It was during his time at Newcastle that he met one Mark Andrews, who on his return to Durban sang the praises of the giant islander. And Andrews was at the airport on Tuesday to meet his former teammate at the Falcons.

"Mark and Warren Britz (who also spent time at Newcastle) planted the seeds of a move to the Sharks," Taione said. "I liked what I heard about big stadiums with great atmospheres, and then Tony Brown told me that he loved Durban and had a special time there with the Sharks."Brown and Taione played together in the Sanyo Wild Knights team that won the Japanese knock-out competition last week. Taione says he played No 8 and flank in the competition but during the league season he was at inside centre.

So what will he play for the Sharks?"I fancy flyhalf, Michalak move over," he joked. "Seriously, it makes no difference to me whether I am a forward or back. I consider myself a rugby player. That is my position: rugby player. On the Islands, it tends to be that way. Most of the time, anybody can play anywhere."

Dick Muir cleared up the matter."We contracted him as a forward, but obviously we will take advantage of his versatility if we need to," the coach said. "It also means that with us being restricted to 26 players for our tour, we can take 15 forwards and 11 backs because of the versatility of Epi and Craig Burden (the hooker who was a wing until a few months ago)."

Muir said that Taione's arrival was timeous for the Sharks."It has been a long wait, and getting here after four rounds was the worst case scenario when we contracted him with the agreement that he would come when his team's cup run was over, but he can make a big impact on the Super 14 during our tour when we hope to play our best rugby."Taione said it would be interesting to tour New Zealand and Australia as "the enemy"."Growing up in Tonga, you support teams from those countries, so I suppose I am in the enemy camp, but proudly so. The Sharks are a world famous team and I believe the challenge to break into this team is the toughest one I have faced so far in rugby."

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