When All Black prop Charlie Faumuina was ruled out for the season with a torn calf just six rounds into the season, there were concerns about how a relatively inexperienced front row might hold up.
However Angus Ta’avao has come of age this season, stepping up remarkably to fill the void left at tighthead prop.
Playing just six games in his debut season last year, Ta’avao is benefitting from regular game time as he has now started the last five games in a row and is taking his opportunity with both hands.
“I’ve been pretty happy with how it’s been going but it all just starts with having that one opportunity,” Ta’avao said.
“I feel really sorry for Chaz but one door closes and another one opens and it’s just an awesome opportunity for me. I’ve been loving getting out there and playing full 80 minute games – there’s nothing like playing consistently to help you learn and experience things.”
What has been most impressive about Ta’avao’s performances this season is his huge work rate.
Last week against the Stormers he made the highest number of tackles (19) and also hit the most rucks of any Blues player.
In fact of the 32 rucks he hit, Ta’avao was one of the first two arriving players in 29 of them ñ statistics relatively unheard of for props.
It’s that huge desire to do whatever it takes for the team that is making heads turn.
“I like to think of myself as a pretty mobile prop that has a high work rate and I’m happy to work for the boys,” he said.
“One of the things we focus on is making others look good and if that means I have less carries and hit more rucks then I’m happy to do that. I’m looking at the bigger picture and I’m enjoying everything I’m doing for the team.”
At just 23-years-old, Ta’avao is in his infancy as far as props go and concedes there are technical areas of his game he needs to work on, particularly at scrum time, but he’s certainly moving in the right direction and is working tirelessly to keep improving.
“I feel like I’ve grown quite a bit this season but I’ve still got a long way to go. We always talk that we have a couple of bad scrums per game and I’m really trying to get that out of my game and work on it but I’ve got good guys around me that are really helping.
“Charlie still sticks around and gives me tips and being around other guys like Freak (Tom McCartney) and just getting regular game time and having repeated scrums helps – there’s nothing like it.”
One of the real characters in the team, Ta’avao also plays a big role off the field and is responsible for presenting nominations for the ‘dick of the week’ – the player who has to drive the bright yellow Fiat Bambina with blue flames down the side.
Auckland born and bred, doing his schooling at Dilworth before moving on to play for Auckland Marist, Ta’avao says it is fantastic to play rugby for a team and region he is so passionate about.
“Ever since I stepped into the Blues environment I’ve felt at home. I grew up in Auckland and I love this region, I love this franchise and I love this place. It’s awesome to be a part of and I can’t put many other words in my mouth – it’s just so surreal.
“At the start of the season people probably looked at us and thought we were a pretty young and inexperienced team and there are a few guys that people won’t have known about. But I think what JK and all the other coaches have set up with the culture and just how tight we are as a group, looking forward we can only go upwards. We’ve already shown this year that we can play some good footy and I’m excited to see where we can get to.”
Indeed there is plenty of confidence in the camp on the back of a narrow 18-17 victory over the bruising Stormers last week, the Blues’ fifth win of the season, however Ta’avao isn’t taking the Melbourne Rebels lightly and knows they pose a huge challenge on Saturday night.
“I think a lot of people are saying we might be the favourites but in a competition like this one anyone can beat anyone and we see them as a real threat,” Ta’avao said.
“We just need to go out there and focus on what we need to do, execute it, make sure we have the accuracy and at the end of the game we’ll see how it goes. We’re confident but not cocky.”