Speaking to Ben Atiga, it’s easy to see the way he views his rugby career: a privilege. Those two words are repeated often, especially when talking about his developmental years in Auckland.
It was a privilege to play for Auckland Grammar’s First XV and attend the same school as his brother – it was here that Atiga saw a future with the sport.
“I had aspirations to play professionally and Grammar was the first stepping stone towards that,” recalls Atiga. “My mother has always been my educator, always pushing me on, so I had to keep my head down and get the grades as well.”
The fast and strong centre was selected for age group national teams throughout high school and was influential in helping the NZ Under 21 team win the 2003 World Championship – the same year he was selected for injury cover for the All Blacks at the Rugby World Cup.
He was going places in the rugby world yet remained aware of his need to work hard and respect the role as a professional sportsman, especially when selected for the high-flying Blues in 2004.
“There was a lot of talent in the side and to be around those players was a privilege,” said Atiga. “I’d gone in to the All Blacks squad prior to making the Blues, but I was well aware of my place and that I had to work hard.”
By 2008, at age 25, Atiga had earned 45 caps for the Blues and helped the team to three playoff seasons. His goal had been to “do the jersey proud” and plenty of sacrifices were made to prioritise rugby.
The weight of it all hit home right before a game during the 2008 season. Atiga, team captain at the time, was sitting on the team bus waiting to leave Skycity for Eden Park. Instead of visualising the upcoming game and how the elusive centre would make his mark on the field, Atiga was fixated on the final whistle.
“All I could think about was the last few minutes of the game and how satisfied I would be when the game was over,” recalls Atiga. “I knew straight away that I shouldn’t be there, I shouldn’t be doing this.”
He withdrew from Super Rugby selection for 2009 and refused to play or even watch the game for 18 months. He put on 20kg and would have remained separate from the rugby world for longer if it weren’t for a rugby fundraiser after the 2009 Samoan tsunami.
Being amongst the rugby world again, surrounded by talented Blues who were involved in the fundraiser, was a game changer. Atiga was ready to return.
After a summer of hard training, Atiga shed the weight and made the Auckland side in 2010. He then shifted to Dunedin to play for the Otago ITM side in 2011 and was drafted in to the Highlanders’ Wider Training Squad, earning one cap off the bench against the Hurricanes. Three years later Atiga achieved another rugby goal: playing the game overseas.
Atiga, his wife and their 10-year-old daughter moved their lives to Scotland to play for Edinburgh Rugby Club in 2012. It wasn’t an easy transition for the family-focussed trio, especially for their daughter.
“It was a hard thing for a child of that age, who’d built friendships with people from church and school, to come here and make a new set of friends,” said Atiga. “But we’ve also seen her grow in confidence into a beautiful and very mature girl.”
In 2014, ten years after his start with the Blues and two seasons at Edinburgh,
Atiga was forced to retire from the game due to a degenerative hip. Playing the game wasn’t worth the pain anymore.
“I had to start thinking about quality of life after the game – I’m thankful I can still play basketball with my kid in the weekends.”
But Atiga wasn’t finished with rugby, or vice versa. The family wanted to remain in Scotland, so Atiga accepted an International Resettlement Advisor role with Scotland Rugby Union. He’s part of the recruitment team for Glasgow and Edinburgh Rugby and helps the players transition to the different country, culture and climate of Scotland.
The role is based at Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh, so Atiga is able to keep his finger on the pulse of rugby while also getting to know more about the historic city. While the family are content to stay, there’s still the hope of returning to where it all started.
“We talk about coming home,” he said. “Auckland Rugby and the Blues have done so much for me and my life, I can’t think of any better way to come back and repay.
“For us, there’s no place like Auckland.”