By Mark Janzen
It’s best we break down the moment one sip at a time. This way, we can savour it a little bit longer.
The scene played out inside Olympic Stadium in London. Some 54,658 fans were in attendance as the United States were handed a proper shellacking by a surly Springboks side in the Eagles penultimate contest at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. You’ll remember, South Africa had opened the tournament with a stunning loss to Japan. Against the Americans, the Springboks were unrelenting in their dissection.
Joe Taufete’e came into the game in the 72nd minute, making his Eagles debut just three days after his 23rd birthday. His entrance seemed to be little more than a substitution in a boxscore. It was more.
With the clock already beyond 80 minutes, the USA trailed 57-0.
A ruck formed at midfield and, with the Americans holding possession, USA scrumhalf Niku Kruger looked set to snatch the ball from the base. To the surprise of Kruger and pretty much everyone else – like I mean, everyone…Zack Test was literally looking in the opposite direction and the nearby Springboks were utterly flatfooted and oblivious – Taufete’e picked up the ball and just took off. Brilliant.
He ran 30 metres before – and this is the best part – trying to negotiate a route around Willie le Roux. The South African fullback tackled Taufete’e. The moment was over, but a statement was made.
“I was honestly not fit enough at that time,” Taufete’e recalls. “I couldn’t believe that opened up for me. The silly thing now looking back is that I tried to sidestep Willie le Roux. That was…I mean, I was an idiot.” The 6-foot, 266-pound Taufete’e chuckles at the memory. American fans should have been salivating.
As it turned out, those six seconds were only a mouthwatering opening act.
Four years and 20 tries later, Taufete’e is the world record-holder for international tries by a hooker. That’s not news. He accomplished the feat several months ago, but it’s worth pausing and thinking about how kind of crazy that is.
Now, with the burrs of the 2019 Rugby World Cup churning and the smells wafting, Taufete’e is set to be a central figure within the Eagles setup. Can’t wait.
Dude scores tries. He scores lots of tries. He scores tries in big games. And, in most games, it’s only a matter of time before the opposition turns into speedbumps or turnstiles. Taufete’e, who has become a fan favourite with the Worcester Warriors, isn’t partial.
Neither are we. And in this case, memory lane is enjoyable, informative, and perhaps a predictor of what’s to come.
Of course, there was the one against Ireland. It’s not his all-time favourite (we’ll get there), but it was obviously special.
Playing in front of a packed house at Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Taufete’e threw in a lineout from just outside Ireland’s 22. The play was designed to send the ball back to an awaiting Taufete’e. It worked perfectly. Taufete’e took a pass from Marcel Brache and basically did the rest of the work, evading or crashing through Irish defenders, getting back to his feet and scoring.
“We had a play to go back to the hooker and I found space and then I couldn’t believe I was getting a run and go at it,” Taufete’e says. “Then, when I initially took the hit, nobody held me down on the ground. So, I popped back up and found myself to the goal line.”
Then, there was the try he recalls most fondly. It was his second of the game against Scotland. Yeah, that game…when the USA earned an historic one-point victory off a tier one nation. But before we get to his second, the first one was pretty cool in its own right. Taufete’e literally picked up the ball and did a 360-degree spin, harkening back to his basketball-playing post moves, before driving across the goal line.
“Never in my rugby career did I think I’d be spinning in a game,” he says. “I just saw that first defender pointed in really heavy with some space outside of him and when I saw an opportunity, it just kind of came to me. It was kinda humourous to think about.”
The second one was less humourous and more badass.
Off the back of a driving maul, Taufete’e scooped around the left side and promptly crushed two would-be defenders. Scotland’s Luke Hamilton (at 6-foot-3 and 236 pounds) and George Turner (at 5-foot-11 and 231 pounds) became a 467-pound speed bump left searching for their pride amidst the blades of grass at Houston’s BBVA Compass Stadium. He then carried George Horne and Zander Fagerson on his back for the better part of the last five metres, before diving across the line. No exaggeration.
“I knew we had a penalty, and as soon as I saw there was space in between the maul and the first person, I wanted to take that advantage,” he says. “I didn’t think I would slip off both of them in the first contact and then to be able to break away from that group – it caught me by surprise.”
Well, it shouldn’t have caught him by surprise. It’s kind of what he does. Born in American Samoa but largely raised in California, the product of Belmont Shore RFC has an inner drive that comes to life every time he steps on a pitch.
“I think it just comes from my upbringing and the American way,” he says. “There’s just an attitude that nothing is going to stop me from getting what I want and doing what I want to do.”
Yeah, he’s now doing the thing.
When he tallied a hat-trick against Uruguay in this year’s Americas Rugby Championship, he surpassed legendary Irish hooker Keith Wood for the most international tries by a hooker. A week later, he added two more against Canada to push his recent run of success to 17 tries in his last 12 international games.
“I’ve been blessed with having coaches who understand the type of player I am,” he says. “[Eagles coach] Gary [Gold] understands that I’m more on the heavy side for a hooker [and] they just say play your game and do what you do best. It gives me the confidence to do what I do.”
Now heading to his second World Cup, Taufete’e will be a leader in Japan. And if the Eagles are to have success and unfurl an upset, USA’s star hooker will have to be at his spinning, diving, and barging best.
“We have the tools and the athletes to make it work,” says Taufete’e, who returns to the Eagles camp near full health after missing the last five months with a foot injury. “The odds are usually against us with the pool that we have, but if we win those little battles, we’ll come out on top.”
There will be a Taufete’e moment. Probably more than one, and probably something special. Don’t fall asleep. Seriously, one sip at a time is the way to go in the middle of the night from the confines of North American televisions and time zones.
“I don’t doubt that we’ll turn some heads.”
Will it be speed bumps or turnstiles? Maybe both.