Salesi Ma’afu’s Saints farewell interview

Salesi Ma’afu’s Saints career may have taken a few months to get going, but there’s no doubt he packed a lot into to his time at Franklin’s Gardens.

By Tom Vickers
Sunday, 28th June 2015, 10:34 pm
Salesi Ma'afu is leaving Saints after two seasons at the club
Salesi Ma'afu is leaving Saints after two seasons at the club

The affable Australian prop is heading for pastures new this summer, having done enough in his two years in Northampton to earn a lucrative move to French heavyweights Toulon.

Ma’afu will leave with an abundance of good memories.

Of his debut, in October, 2013, when he helped shore up a Saints pack in deperate need of some solidity.

Of big wins, such as the one at Leinster in the same year, when a Northampton team given no chance rocked up at the Aviva Stadium and avenged the heaviest of home defeats.

Of his one and only Saints try, which came towards the end of his first season in green, black and gold, against London Irish.

And of the Premiership final triumph, with Ma’afu escaping the long arm of the law to secure a starting spot and league winners medal at Twickenham.

He recalls every second of his time at Saints with real fondness and is honest about the moments that threatened to blight his stay at the Gardens.

From that Tom Youngs punch, to other moments when he struggled to stay on the right side of the referee, Ma’afu needs no telling where he went wrong.

But it would be amiss to focus too much on the tough times in a stay that encompassed so many highlights, both for player and club.

Especially when you look at the context, with Ma’afu facing a tough start to life at Saints.

“I came into pre-season on the back of a Super Rugby season and within seven days I was training with the Saints,” said the tighthead prop, who played his final game for Western Force against the Brumbies in July, 2013.

“It was a tough year in Super Rugby and then I had to fly over and train the next day so it was tough at the time but you’ve just got to get on with it.”

Ma’afu’s move to Saints was made slightly easier by family connections.

His wife, Danielle, hails from Corby and moved over to Australia, where she and Ma’afu met, in 1991.

Ma’afu, who has 14 Australia caps to his name, says those links were not a motivation for his move, stressing he always felt Saints would help move his game on.

“We took a bit of time and I had to think about where my career was at. I needed to think whether I still wanted to play for Australia,” he said.

“I had to think about the Saints and see whether I would fit in there, but we sat down, had a good think about it and we decided this was where we were going to be.

“There were a few options at the time but we thought Northampton was a good spot for us, the team was going really well and I was looking at where my game was going.”

Ma’afu had to bide his time, turning out for the Wanderers in a tough week before making his debut.

From playing an away game against Sale’s second string on the Monday night, he travelled to France to start against Castres in a Heineken Cup clash.

And though Saints lost that game narrowly, it was clear his sizeable presence had improved the scrum, which had struggled badly at Leicester on the previous weekend.

“It was a tough week, but I wouldn’t have it any other way,” said Ma’afu.

“It wasn’t a bad one to start off with because Castres were a good side at home with a good record and I thought we did well, despite the result.”

What comes across throughout any conversation with Ma’afu is his willingness to embrace a challenge.

And they don’t come much bigger than having to replace a club icon, with the Australian brought in to replace Brian Mujati, who had moved to Racing Metro in the summer of 2013.

“I played against him a few times in Super Rugby and knew how he played,” Ma’afu said.

“He played really well at Saints under Dorian (West) and it was a challenge for me personally, but I didn’t look too much at what he did for the club.

“He had some good years at Saints, but I just looked at what I could do and worried about myself.”

Under the stewardship of forwards coach West, who Ma’afu says has improved his game significantly - “he was really insightful and helpful to my development” - the powerhouse prop steadily established himself as a pillar of the Saints scrum, becoming something of a favourite in his first season at the club.

And the Gardens faithful really started to take him to their hearts when he scored his first try on a day he admits will never forget.

“It was one of those games you picture in your head when you’re a kid,” said Ma’afu of the 36-21 win against London Irish at the Gardens in April last year.

“You grab the ball, score a try, the set piece is going your way and I really enjoyed it.

“I’ll always remember that.

“I got the man of the match that day and I hadn’t won it before.

“It was definitely a day I’ll remember as a Saint.

“Coming off the field and being applauded by the crowd was so good and I just felt really happy that day. Those were really good memories.”

That Irish success gave Saints the platform they needed to fly into the end-of-season play-offs, where they would meet the old enemy, Leicester Tigers.

East midlands derbies usually provide plenty of flashpoints, and it was to be Ma’afu who was involved in the main one on a fractious night at Franklin’s Gardens.

“People brag about it, but I don’t,” he said, when asked about his punch on Tom Youngs that earned the Saints man a 56th-minute red card. “I would tell kids “don’t do it”.

“It’s just something that happened on the day.

“The incident happened and it’s something I keep getting reminded about but it’s something I put behind me.

“First and foremost, winning that game was the most important thing for me.

“If the result turned out any other way, I would probably have been made scapegoat for it, but to get the win was great.”

After fearing that his season was over, Ma’afu was handed a one-week suspension, meaning he missed the Amlin Challenge Cup final win against Bath at Cardiff Arms Park.

But he was able to make amends in the Premiership final, helping Saints to victory against Saracens in a thrilling finale at Twickenham.

“To miss the (Amlin Challenge Cup) final was disappointing, but I had to accept the punishment for what I did,” Ma’afu said.

“I didn’t think I would be playing in the Premiership final. I didn’t fancy my chances.

“But I was fortunate to be back for it and I made sure that when I did get told I’d have a chance to play the final that I put in a big performance for the boys for my actions in that semi.

“I was lucky enough to play in it, we got the result, brought the cup home to Northampton for the first time and it was a great experience.”

That victory brought ‘one of those nights we would all like to relive’ at the Gardens as Saints celebrated a memorable double.

Ma’afu could then take a breather ahead of the new season and looked to come back stronger.

But last season did not bring the glory of the one before it, with the 32-year-old facing a personal disciplinary battle.

“I did have a few patches and there were games where I let myself down and the team,” said Ma’afu. “I know that before anyone else.

“I don’t need anyone to tell me that I let the team down at times with my discipline.

“But towards the end I felt like I was starting to pick it up again and it got cut short.”

Ma’afu was offered the chance to prolong his stay at Saints, but couldn’t resist the lure of Toulon and the opportunity to earn extra money to provide for his family.

The 32-year-old, who will be replaced by Newcastle and England man Kieran Brookes at Northampton this summer, said: “It wasn’t an easy decision.

“I wasn’t really keen to move at first, but you put your family first in the decisions. I’ve got to do what’s best for me and them.

“Rugby has its place in my eyes, it’s not the be-all and end-all, it’s a short career and I’ve got to look after them. Who knows what I will be doing next?

“The decision wasn’t easy because I love Northampton.

“I had an option to stay at Saints and we had a think about it, talked to different people looking for advice and I made my decision in the end.

“Fans probably weren’t happy about it, but I’ve got to do what I can for my family. They come first and I’ve got to look after them.”

Ma’afu will be joined by at Toulon by Samu Manoa this summer.

And he said: “Samu has been one of those guys who turned up at my front door not long after I arrived. We had a connection straight away.

“Another two years of him is going to be the same and we’ll probably get sick of each other at the end of the day.”

Now another challenge awaits. One that is even bigger than stepping into the shadow of South African star Mujati.

Ma’afu must try to force his way into a galaxy of stars at Toulon, but the laid-back front row forward is continuing to take it all in his stride.

“I looked at the Saints before I arrived here and they had achieved a lot as a club,” he said, using the past as comfort for the future.

“When I arrived here, I didn’t look at what the guy before me did, even though it was impressive.

“I’m looking forward to working with Carl Hayman at Toulon because I’ve always looked up to him and that’s going to be massive for me.

“He’s set the standards for the tightheads.

“It’s going to be a challenge in adapting to their style of play, scrummaging and that sort of stuff.

“I’ll be living it very shortly and I’m looking forward to it.

“I’ve had time to get my head around that stuff and if I was going from Australia to a team like that I probably wouldn’t be as confident, but coming from Saints to Toulon is going to be a big help for me.”

But there is no doubt that there will always be a place in Ma’afu’s heart for Saints.

“I’ll miss all the guys,” said the Sydney-born prop, who made 55 appearances for Northampton. “They always made me feel welcome, made my life easy.

“I thoroughly enjoyed my rugby there and I loved running out at the Gardens.

“It was the most phenomenal fan base I’d played in front of. Saints supporters come with you to away games.

“They sit out in the rain in the winter and it’s a great support.

“When they get behind you in the games, it’s unreal.

“I’ll miss that and all the lads. I’m going to keep in touch with all of them and we’ll be seeing each other again.”