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Naitoa Ah Kuoi and Steamers looking forward to Lions test on Sunday

Naitoa Ah Kuoi playing in his only match for Marist St Pat’s this year, a draw with Johnsonville. Photo: Andy McArthur. 

  • By Steven White 

There is plenty of synergy between Wellington and Bay of Plenty, in terms of playing style, team culture and the sort of individuals that thrive in both unions.

Current BoP head coach Richard Watt is one, as is Paremata-Plimmerton crowd favourite and Steamers prop Pasilio Tosi.

Naitoa Ah Kuoi is certainly another, and in recent years has spent time in both camps.

If selected to play for the Steamers against the Wellington Lions this Sunday afternoon in Rotorua, it will be Ah Kuoi’s fourth time playing in this fixture. The first two in 2019 and 2020 were for Wellington and the third last season was for BoP.

All these recent matches were hard-fought often free-wheeling encounters befitting the pattern of their rivalry, as Ah Kuoi recalled in conversation with Club Rugby this week:

“When I was playing for the Lions, we beat BoP by a point in Rotorua [16-15], and we beat them in a closely fought game the following year at Wellington [32-10].

“I didn’t play the following year as I was sitting 2021 out with concussion, but that was the match that Pasilio Tosi scored a memorable solo try and the Bay won by a point again [33-32].

“Then last year the lead changed five or six times and it ended up being a high scoring game and Wellington ended up winning [37-35]. That was my debut NPC match for BoP and it was down in Wellington, so it was a like a full circle moment for me.”

Playing for Bay of Plenty on Steamers debut in the opening round of 2022 against Wellington.

As well as that, the Chiefs’ first win after losing 11 games was also against the Hurricanes in Wellington. “That was such an awesome game, one of my favourite memories.”

Ah Kuoi’s rugby career is currently firmly embedded in the BoP and at the Chiefs. He is passionate about playing for both teams, but his heart is still with Wellington, and whenever he is home he helps out the two institutions that gave him his opportunities and love of the game, Wellington College and Marist St Pat’s.

“Whenever I am down in Wellington and have the chance to, I like to go down and help both Wellington College and MSP.

“It was cool to go into Wellington College this year and see the players and Neemia Tialata and Piri Weepu who are running the cutter. Those guys are smart, and they have done it all, and they are building a positive overall rugby programme there for players from year 9 to year 13,” the 2017 First XV captain enthused.

Playing for Wellington College in their 2017 First XV traditional.

A former MSP Junior, Ah Kuoi played the first of his 22 Premier matches for his club first year out of school in 2018, and played one match this season when MSP drew 31-31 with Johnsonville. He was last seen in Wellington club rugby supporting MSP in the Hardham Cup final.

He also has his twin three-year olds, Rylee and Reegan, who were born during lockdown in 2020, and don’t be surprised to see them playing top level sport in about 15 years from now.  Father Ken still plays rugby and when Club Rugby saw him a couple of times playing for the MSP Presidents this season he was running hard in the midfield.

The Steamers come into this Sunday’s match against Wellington with a four win-two loss record, which includes four games decided by inside the margin of a try. They were crowned the ‘Real Bay’ this past Saturday by pipping Hawke’s Bay 38-35.

“We don’t want these close games, we would prefer them to be more comfortable in our favour,” said Ah Kuoi. “We try and put in 80-minute performances, but we let ourselves down at times by lacking energy or giving away stupid penalties and bringing teams back into the game.”

“Take our first two games. We started both with a hiss and a roar and then let the other teams back in. Against Auckland we lost [30-32] and against Waikato we won [19-15].

“This week against Wellington will be the big test, they are ripping through the whole comp at the moment.”

The Lions are on a 19-match unbeaten streak, so can the Steamers break it this week?

BoP’s most convincing win thus far was 38-14 against Otago, which was at Rotorua, the scene of this Sunday’s match.

Ah Kuoi has played all six of the Steamers matches thus far at blindside flanker, a position he enjoys but had to transition back into after Super Rugby.

“I played most of the season at lock for the Chiefs and was running into brick walls, so I have been getting up to speed again at blindside. I transitioned to blindside in last year’s NPC for BoP and I thought I could just come straight back in after Super Rugby but its been a bit difficult trying to find my feet.”

There’s no shortage of gnarly loose forwards in the NPC competition, not least in Wellington’s pack.

“The calibre of the Lions is high and for us it’s a massive challenge. They have got loosies coming out of everywhere, with guys like Brad Shields, Du Plessis Kirifi, Peter Lakai and Keelan Whitman who is another MSP player.”

A highlight of Ah Kuoi’s season was his trip to Japan in July with the All Blacks XV team, his second time wearing a black jersey after previously playing for the New Zealand Schools side in his final year at Wellington College in 2017.

“I loved that trip. Japanese fans are awesome, and they love rugby. We played the Sunwolves in Japan in 2020 and that was my favourite trip of my career and then I was so excited to get another visit back there this year. Playing in front of sold-out crowds and hearing the national anthem was cool and it was a good challenge for me and a good taste of international rugby.

“The only thing was that it was very hot. I thought the Hamilton summer was hot, but then I went there, and I was cooking.”

The heat will be on for a different reason in this coming Sunday’s match between Bay of Plenty and Wellington, which kicks off at Rotorua International Stadium at 2.05pm.

Head-to-head, Wellington has won 28 and Bay of Plenty six and there have been two draws in their history. Wellington have won nine of their past 10 encounters.

Read our 2020 story with Naitoa Ah Kuoi: 

Naitoa Ah Kuoi taking rugby return one step at a time

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