IT WAS THE fend that made everyone sit up.
The flash of fast-twitch power, the left hand planted into Bourgoin fullback Florian Denos’ chest in the blink of an eye, leaving the Frenchman flapping at the red jersey for a split second before he was beaten.
Minutes after coming off the bench for his Thomond Park debut for Munster in October 2006, and having already delivered what would become a trademark rib-tickling hit, PNBHS Old Boy Lifeimi Mafi (1996-2000) was showing he had something different, even in a squad that had reached its holy grail by winning the Heineken Cup the season before.
With those ferocious impacts, Mafi announced his arrival and barely looked back from there, going on to play for Munster 144 times in total and helping them to their second European title in 2008, as well as winning two Celtic League titles in his six years with the province.
Speaking on the phone from New Zealand – where he’s working in his old school, Palmerston North Boys’ High – Mafi says he and his wife, Sarah, enjoyed thinking back over their time in Ireland after the interview request landed in.
The rugby success stands out but the Mafi family remember the people even more.
“We definitely felt at home,” says 37-year-old Mafi. “We bought a house there, our first two children were born in Ireland. Everyone around us at the time made us feel at home and not even just in the rugby circle, everyone in our little town of Carrigaline.
“We got really close to our neighbours, the Kissanes, and we still keep in touch. So it wasn’t just the rugby scene, it was that little community we had. It felt like home.”
The WhatsApp group made up of Munster old boys still buzzes away, usually with jokes and slagging but sometimes with sad news, most recently in the case of the passing of former CEO Garrett Fitzgerald.
Mafi remains in contact with the likes of Tomás O’Leary and Denis Hurley and keeps a close eye on what the rest of his former team-mates are up to. A return to watch a match at Thomond Park is on his to-do list and Munster will always have a special place in his heart.
A native of Tonga, Mafi moved with his family to Palmerston North when he was very young, growing up in the North Island city and showing his rugby talent with Kia Toa RFC and in school.
He was a New Zealand U19 and U21 international, winning the 2003 World Championship alongside Stephen Donald and John Afoa at the latter level, while playing in midfield with Sam Tuitupou, who also ended up at Munster years later.
Mafi broke into senior provincial rugby with Manawatu before a move to Taranaki and he was also part of New Zealand 7s squads – those caps preventing him from qualifying for Ireland on residency or playing for Tonga further down the line.
A start for Taranaki against the British and Irish Lions in 2005 allowed him to show his quality – and play against John Hayes and Donncha O’Callaghan – but he still wasn’t called on for Super Rugby despite being in the Hurricanes squad in 2006. Frustrated, Mafi was open to offers from abroad.
His former academy director in Manawatu, Hamish Adams, was in the same role with Munster at the time, while ex-Taranaki and Manawatu midfielder Jason Holland was playing with the southern province. Contact was made.
“Before I knew it, I was in Ireland,” recalls Mafi. “It was different. Myself and my wife, I remember we hopped in the taxi after landing and the driver was talking to us.
“He was blabbering on and we looked at each other and we were like, ‘Is he talking English?!’ We couldn’t understand a word he was saying!
“It was definitely a change for us but it was great timing.”
Having finished up the 2006 season with Taranaki, Mafi arrived in Ireland in October but there was no delay in getting a sense of what he was joining. Even though his first time visiting Thomond Park was for a home defeat to Edinburgh, Mafi was impressed.
“We had only arrived two days before. We drove to the game with Garrett Fitzgerald and we watched from the stands. We were just amazed by the crowd, the singing.
“We were wrapped up in beanies and hoodies, it was freezing. But the energy you got, you still felt warm because everyone was in the same boat, singing and cheering.”
Just over a week later, Mafi got his debut with a brief cameo off the bench against Leicester in the Heineken Cup and then made that impression versus Bourgoin the following week. From there, he was a clear first-choice in midfield alongside Trevor Halstead.
Mafi showed his ability but Munster had a disappointing 2006/07 season, losing to Llanelli in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals and finishing sixth in the Celtic League.
Then the arrival of Kiwi centre Rua Tipoki transformed Munster’s game and helped Mafi to move to another level.
Their centre partnership outside Ronan O’Gara was sensational. Hard-edged and relentlessly aggressive in defence, clever in their passing and offloading, punchy and elusive in attack, Mafi and Tipoki worked wonderfully together.
The arrival of All Blacks legend Doug Howlett midway through the season helped Munster to shift up another gear as they drove on to their second Heineken Cup, but Mafi underlines just how big an influence Tipoki, seven years his senior, had on him.
“It was what I needed at that time,” says Mafi. “Rua was the perfect mentor and Doug too. Those were guys I had looked up to for years growing up in New Zealand. To be able to play with them was massive for me.
“With Rua, the way he said stuff made me believe that I was a key member of the squad. He had so much belief in me. He would ask questions rather than tell me what to do. He knew what he wanted to say but he wanted to allow me to figure it out, which made me feel like I was developing my game, my growth in the game and as a leader in the squad.
“I’m so thankful for him and what he did to help me achieve another level in my game.”
Playing outside a world-class out-half like O’Gara wasn’t bad either.
“ROG is demanding of effort and demanding for you to be up at his level, which is where you wanted to be all the time. He was awesome as a leader and he always had that respect level.
“He would talk about little things, like all we had to do was beat our man before we got the ball and then he would put the ball into space.
“To have that in the back of your mind… that whatever you do, he would put the ball in the right place, you felt confident in your own abilities and that if you did your job, ROG would put the ball where it needed to be.”
With Mafi and Tipoki integral throughout, Munster topped a tough pool also including Clermont, Wasps and Llanelli before beating Gloucester away in the quarter-finals, edging past Saracens in the semis and then overcoming Toulouse 16-13 in the final at the Millennium Stadium.
“It felt like a home game,” says Mafi of the decider. “They had the roof closed, I remember we couldn’t hear any of our calls because there was so much noise.
“It was real emotional for me because my brother was there too, he was in the crowd. To give him one of my jerseys at the end of the game was pretty special.”
Mafi was a European champion, his status as a Munster legend already confirmed, with fans affectionately nicknaming him ‘Larry Murphy’.
The celebrations “lasted a few months,” jokes Mafi but Munster had certainly sobered up by the time they faced the All Blacks in Thomond Park for a famous encounter in November 2008.
Unforgettably, Mafi stepped forward with Tipoki, Howlett, and Jeremy Manning before the game to perform the spine-tingling Munster haka.
“I didn’t know how special it was back then,” says Mafi. “It was a special time doing the haka and facing guys I had played with in New Zealand.
“I was on the other side when I was with the New Zealand U19s, the U21s and the 7s, so to be doing it back was a huge honour and it was a privilege to be facing those guys I grew up with. It lay down the challenge, it was special.”
Munster could and probably should have won but Joe Rokocoko broke their hearts with 76th-minute try to steal an 18-16 win.
Mafi has never been able to watch it back in full, blaming himself for a defensive misread on that deciding try.
“I still haven’t watched the match from start to finish. It’s touchy because I made a mistake right at the end which caused the try, I thought. I take it as it is, but that shows why they were the best in the world. One little mistake and they capitalise on it and make a try.”
There was Celtic League success later that season but Munster were well beaten by Leinster in the Heineken Cup semi-finals and then Tipoki was gone by the summer of 2009, returning home to New Zealand and ending what had been a superb partnership.
Mafi stayed with Munster for another three years but came very close to signing for Clermont in 2010 due to a longstanding connection with none other than Joe Schmidt.
The future Ireland boss was Mafi’s third-form English teacher at Palmerston North Boys’ High back in the day, while his wife, Kellie, had been Mafi’s primary school teacher.
“Basically, I was up for contract renewal with Munster and I took a trip over to Clermont to see Joe and Vern Cotter. I went to a game, I caught up with Joe and connected with him and his wife again after all those years.
“I was really close to signing with Clermont but then Joe signed for Leinster and I didn’t want to go. It didn’t work out but he has done great and amazing things.”
On his next contract renewal, Mafi did end up moving to France as he signed for Perpignan, another complete change of direction.
“Change is part of growth. It was a shock at the start but then it was a new challenge for myself, my wife, and the kids. It was also a new challenge for my rugby to take what I learned from all the guys in Munster, all the leaders.
“It was hard at the start but it was the perfect spot for me to go to. In Ireland, they told me on the first day that there were going to be 300 days of rain, but in Perpignan they told me it was going to be 300 days of sun.”
Perpignan had a strong first season in Mafi’s time, qualifying for the Heineken Cup, in which he ended up playing against Munster at Stade Aimé Giral, where JJ Hanrahan’s last-gap try gave the visitors a narrow win. For Mafi, “it was quite emotional playing against all the boys that I’m so close to.”
Perpignan had a sharp decline on the domestic front that season, though, getting relegated from the Top 14. Mafi spent four seasons battling to get them back out of the Pro D2 and ended his time with the club by captaining them to promotion, putting into action so much of what he was “blessed to learn from the leaders in Munster.”
Perpignan tried to keep him on board, even in a coaching role, but New Zealand was calling again and the family, now bolstered by two France-born Mafi kids, moved back in 2018.
“I knew what I was coming home for: family,” says Mafi. “My parents weren’t getting any younger and my father and my wife’s father had been in and out of hospital, so we knew it was time to come home.
“We’re closer to them, the kids can have a relationship with them and we’re finding our feet.”
The plan was to hang up his boots upon returning to New Zealand but Manawatu convinced him to play one final Mitre 10 Cup campaign in 2018, the prospect of being part of the same squad as his cousin, All Black centre Ngani Laumape, among the attractions.
Those final few appearances for his home province signalled the end of Mafi’s time as a professional player. The sense of coming full circle has continued with his new role as the dean of Pasifika students at Palmerston North Boys’ High, where he is also coaching.
Helping the students to develop their rugby skills is enjoyable, but Mafi is as passionate about his duties in guiding the Maori and Pacific Island students outside the sport.
“I’m giving back but I’m gaining a lot,” says Mafi, explaining that helping youngsters to build relationships and manage their wellbeing is as important as guiding them in passing technique and some of the kicking tactics he learned from ROG in Munster.
“There are so many talented young guys here but they’re under stress with school work, then playing rugby, the games are televised. They’re under an enormous amount of stress, so we’re finding steps to balance it and make them aware.
“My role is more to do with the Pacifika kids, I take care of all the kids in the school with their achievements, mental wellbeing, all their pastoral stuff. It’s about giving them balance, goal-setting, making sure they’re achieving their goals on and off the pitch.
“Some Maori and Pacifika kids might not be turning up to class, not doing much at class, so it’s about mentoring them so they can get the best out of the school.”
There are surely few people better placed than Mafi to guide those students.
His own family are happily settled in Palmerston North, with Sarah working in one-time Munster scrum-half Toby Morland’s personal training company, Studio Rubix.
While the lockdown has put everything on hold, the four Mafi kids – now aged 12, nine, six, and four – have shown their own sporting talent.
“My son goes on YouTube studying rugby and his favourite player is Cheslin Kolbe,” says Mafi. “He’s always trying to do his moves.”
No time for the Lifeimi Mafi highlights reels?
“He said I’m too old!”
Little does he know just how big an impact his father made in six years with Munster.
Author: Murray Kinsella | To read the original article please click here