Ton-up Neemia Tialata that little bit smarter

TOBY ROBSON
Last updated 05:00 10/06/2011
Neemia Tialata
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TON UP: Tonight, Neemia Tialata celebrates his 100th game for the Hurricanes franchise.

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Neemia Tialata has always had a lot more to him than just the ability to shunt other big men backwards at scrum time.

He's rugby's Twitter pioneer, with more than 10,000 followers; he's a design student, musician and a philanthropist.

Sport has been his meal ticket for the past eight years and the 28-year-old believes he has the ability to carry on for another decade if his body allows.

But as his Hurricanes career hits 100 matches in Hamilton tonight it deserves to be remembered for more than just scrums, tackles and hit-ups.

Few players have impressed more off the field than the affable giant.

When Samoa was hit by a tsunami it was Tialata who designed and sold T-shirts to raise funds for the victims, with tens of thousands of dollars going back to the islands.

Of the many other examples, perhaps the most endearing was when Christchurch was struck by February's devastating earthquake.

As rugby folk ummed and ahhed over what to do, Tialata tweeted immediately to cancel the match against the Crusaders and focus on what really mattered – the victims. He then organised a charity basketball match that raised more than $30,000.

It's a generosity borne of a background that saw him thrust into responsibility at an early age.

One of nine children, he was raised by his aunty, Nu'ulopa Saolele, the woman he has called mum since his own mother, Poutasi, died of cancer in 1995. His father, the Reverend Pelema Tialata, died of a heart attack five years earlier.

Neemia Tialata devoted himself to his mum, brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces and, of course, his rugby.

Leaving his family behind was the toughest part of his decision to sign with French club Bayonne from next season.

"I'm at a stage of my life where I'm ready to move on and start my future with my partner [Sally] and further my career and get more experience," he said. "I think I'll enjoy the French culture. I'm really looking forward to that and I know I'll grow more as a person as well."

THAT has been a constant theme for the Petone tighthead prop, who is looking forward to completing the final year of a degree in visual arts.

"I've always liked working with kids and teaching was always going to be there when I finish rugby – intermediate or secondary schools.

"I've always loved my art, so I have that to fall back on. I've been lucky I have built up a pretty big portfolio over the last eight or nine years, just doing bits and pieces for a lot of charities and my own stuff as well ... clothing, tattoos, all sorts of stuff."

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Tialata's rugby hasn't been all plain sailing. A few years back he was given an ultimatum by the All Blacks coaches at a time when the ELVs (experimental law variations) were reducing the game to a confused hybrid of touch and rugby league.

"It was more of a wakeup call for myself. I wouldn't say I was cruising, but I got a bit too comfortable and got a kick up the butt and got back into it.

"My partner plays a big role, my mum as well, but also the players – my good mates Ma'a [Nonu] and Piri [Weepu]. I still remember my talk with Ma'a at the time telling him how down I was and how I had let things slip and I'd let it get to me. He helped me through that."

An ambassador for Arthritis New Zealand, Tialata says he has learned to manage his knees and hasn't had any pain for the past two years.

An easy interview, Tialata hasn't always had an affinity with the media. He was an easy target for critics who labelled him too slow for the modern game.

Some of it has been unfair. Pushing 130kg, Tialata was never going to be fleet-footed but has always fitted the job description of a tighthead prop.

He showed during last year's ITM Cup that he was no spent force and earned an All Blacks call-up for the end-of-year tour.

He should thrive in France, where tightheads play well into their 30s. "I'm not going over there to retire," he says.

Tialata grew up dreaming of being a Hurricane and rates the 2006 season in which the side reached the ill-fated "fog final" as the highlight.

But he says he'll cherish the friendships with Nonu, Weepu, John Schwalger, Cory Jane, Jerry Collins, Tana Umaga and many more, rather than the rugby memories.

He is probably only an outside shot to play for the All Blacks at the World Cup, but his final season with the Hurricanes will be remembered as much for what he did off the field as on it.

Name: Neemia Tialata

Nickname: Neyza

Age: 28

Educated: Wellington College

Club: Petone

Physical: 1.87m, 127kg

Hurricanes debut: 2004, v Chiefs

Wellington debut: 2003, v Otago

Tests: 43

- The Dominion Post

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