5 Feb 2019

Angus Ta'avao: Rugby's gig economy success story

3:22 pm on 5 February 2019

This time last year, Angus Ta'avao was wondering exactly where his career was going - whether he'd have a Super Rugby spot, whether he'd have to shift overseas, or whether it might be worth looking at something else to do for a job.

Chiefs prop Angus Ta'avao

Angus Ta'avao Photo: Photosport

That was, and indeed in some ways still is, Ta'avao's reality. While things are an awful lot brighter and secure now thanks to what turned into a breakout season that landed him firstly in the Chiefs wider training squad, then starting team, then the All Blacks, he knows that there was a heavy dose of luck.

"It was scary, you know. My whole career has gone from contract to contract, two year deals. Then it was like, far out I don't have a deal next year [2018]. I felt like I'd had a good Mitre 10 Cup, still had a lot of belief in my ability. So it was a bit frustrating, seeing other people get contracted and you didn't have a gig yourself." he said at the Super Rugby launch in downtown Auckland.

He definitely wouldn't have been sitting there had things not started rolling his way after he was called into the Chiefs as a late injury replacement.

On one hand, his story is a compelling tale of sticking to your dreams and waiting for your opportunities.

On the other, it's evidence that a pro rugby player's career isn't at all different to the one faced by anyone trying to crack it in a competitive job market. He was like a lot of 27-year-olds these days, treading from one contract to the next.

Ta'avao's story had taken him from a seemingly steady path at the Blues to a sudden detour to Australia to try and make the Wallabies.

It's made him somewhat of a unique case, given that players in his position who find themselves out of favour and head offshore generally don't come back. If they do, it's after a long graft in the Northern Hemisphere or Japan and their chances of making the All Blacks are long gone.

"That was the truth about it. It was all good riding this high and getting those contracts, but you sort of see it but you don't really notice that there's only a certain amount of spots to be filled each year. As easy as that, you could be gone. When it's all going good for you, you don't really notice it. But when you're in that position, you're like 'this is the truth of it'."

It seemed that way with Ta'avao too, as he came back to sign a deal with Taranaki in 2017. Maybe a few more years taking to the park as a provincial battler, then another overseas stint to finish the career.

Karl Tu/inukuafe at All Blacks training.

Karl Tu'inukuafe Photo: Photosport

But a run of injuries in the Chiefs saw him move up to a starting spot, which in turn impressed the All Black selectors enough to bring him into the Rugby Championship squad and then the end of year tour.

Just like that, he'd gone from consulting a career adviser about how to earn a living until the Mitre 10 Cup started to being able to skip the start of Chiefs pre-season training because of his All Black status.

Chiefs and All Black teammate Karl Tu'inukuafe shares a similar rags to riches All Black story with Ta'avao, although the latter's is somewhat more Cinderella-like given that he went from being an overweight bouncer who wasn't even playing rugby that long ago to a fully fledged cult hero in the space of one year.

But, like Ta'avao admitted, there's only so many spots to be filled.

He and Tu'inukuafe got their chances last year because of season ending injuries to Aidan Ross and Atu Moli, which is a stark reminder that for every success story in rugby, there's a flip-side to go along with it. He knows that, and fully admits that now that while he's an All Black, this gig could come to an end at any stage.

"I wouldn't say I'm established. I've only played three games, and the competition at prop is fierce. I would say I've done everything I can to put my hand up and work hard. Nothing's guaranteed."

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