Lifeimi Mafi’s face shines with delight as he tells us about his plans to meet up with some old friends in Wellington next week.
It has been eight years since he returned to Ireland, the place he and his young family once called home, so this special reunion is one he has long looked forward to.
The lifelong bonds Mafi forged over his six successful years at Munster remain as strong as ever because even though he hasn’t seen the likes of Paul O’Connell and Keith Earls in a while, the connection and the mutual respect deeply.
When Mafi first arrived in Munster in 2006, he wasn’t sure what to expect, but it didn’t take long for him to realize that the province was something special.
He had been active in different teams at home in New Zealand, but Mafi found that the dressing room in Munster was different.
Then there were the people. Ten years later, Mafi is still fondly remembered by Munster fans as one of the most exciting centers to have played for the club. Tough, aggressive, powerful, skilled, Mafi’s wide range of skills earned him cult hero status.
earlier this week, independent.ie met Mafi in New Zealand and it was clear that the time in Münster had shaped him and his family, which now includes four children.
“I think playing for Munster brings out something in you,” says Mafi.
“To play something bigger than the jersey or bigger than a contract, to play for the guys around you. Maybe the crowd can see that you’re playing for something bigger than yourself. Münster always gets that out of foreign players.
“Jim Williams was a prime example when we arrived. He always played out of his skin to represent Munster. We had a lot of great examples ahead of us, so it was natural to play the same way.”
Mafi came to Munster at a time when the province had just won its first Heineken Cup.
Expectations rose but unlike the natives of New Zealand, he says the Irish are more understanding when things don’t go as well as Mafi endured a frustrating first season before Munster returned to the promised land the following year.
“They love their rugby in Limerick and Cork,” smiles Mafi.
“When I left New Zealand, the New Zealanders were a bit too critical of players compared to Ireland. It wasn’t that negative. It was about celebrating the players. It was about celebrating Münster as a province.
“It didn’t matter if we lost. It was important how we played and we tried to play like that to make people proud every time we were out there.”
Born in Tonga, raised in New Zealand, Mafi has always had a deep connection to his roots, which is why he thinks he fit in so well in Munster, and Carrigaline, where he and his wife Sarah felt so at home, they bought a house .
“My two oldest children were born in Ireland,” says Mafi. “It was a special time in our lives, full of special moments and memories.
“My eldest daughter still has friends in Ireland because she went to school there for four years. My eldest son also has an Irish passport.
“He’s quite skilled at rugby, I keep telling him ‘You know you’re going to play for Ireland, you’re cheering for Ireland! You don’t play for the All Blacks!’ He says, ‘No, no, dad.’ I say: ‘No, no, you play for Ireland!’
“So we have a strong connection with Ireland. The children know very well where they come from and where they were born. I mention it every now and then.
“It’s a beautiful story that they’ve traveled all over the world. They came home and told their friends and classmates about their little trip as well. It’s part of us.”
A year after joining Munster, Rua Tipoki arrived and immediately formed a devastating midfield partnership with Mafi.
On their day, the Kiwi duo were unplayable as their intuitive understanding was one of the main reasons Munster won their second Heineken Cup in 2008.
“Munster and the Irish have given me a lot,” Mafi continues.
“I will always be very grateful for the time I spent there, especially for the group of guys who were there at the time. You made it so special.
“Looking back on it, you’re always trying to recreate the same scenario with all these types of players, but Rua always said it; “It will never be the same again.
“You can keep striving, but it will never be the same as it was when we were together.”
“Rua talks a lot about it, the Maori and the Irish are very similar. They’re welcoming, they speak from the heart, they’re storytellers, you know? They love a little story here and there – the gift of the mouth!
“But we are very connected. It makes it a lot easier when it’s the same and you can feel at home. The Irish did that and the guys from the Munster team did that.”
That European Cup win against Toulouse in 2008 was the best moment of Mafi’s career, although it took a while to appreciate the magnitude of what they achieved that day in Cardiff.
“I took it for granted because there was nothing special,” admits Mafi.
“It was a special moment that will live on forever. I shared this moment with lifelong friends like Keith Earls and Paulie (O’Connell).
“When I see her next week we will just smile and laugh at those moments. It’s so special.
“When you’re young you take it for granted, you don’t absorb everything. But as you get older, you remind yourself that those are the moments you really cherish.”
Mafi praises the many leaders in his Münster wardrobe. From Alan Quinlan to John Hayes and David Wallace, there was no shortage of homegrown talent propelling the province to success, alongside a sprinkling of foreign stars like Mafi, Tipoki and Doug Howlett, who joined Jeremy Manning to perform the haka for an unforgettable night against the All Blacks at Thomond Park in 2008.
The glue that held everyone together, however, was Anthony Foley. Mafi was just as devastated as the rest of his former teammates upon learning of Foley’s death.
“It was hard for everyone, especially for his family,” Mafi sighs.
“I still remember playing against the Scarlets at Llanelli. It was pouring rain and we completed 33 phases.
“I can still remember Axel getting off the ground with a gulp of water and almost drowning! But he just got back up to get the job done. He didn’t stop.
“Axel was a prime example of a man who put his heart into Munster rugby and the youth and provincial team. It’s a very rare specimen from a man you get like this. He is still really missed.”
Mafi spent six years in Perpignan before returning to New Zealand in 2018. He now works at his alma mater, Palmerston North Boys’ High School, where he directs the rugby program in which Joe Schmidt used to be heavily involved.
A key part of Mafi’s role is working with the children of Pacific Islanders in hopes of advancing their rugby careers and keeping them on the right track.
“I love being able to give back my experiences,” says Mafi.
“Student rugby is almost semi-professional and these kids are under so much pressure.
“They haven’t even learned the tools to deal with it and be consistent in rugby.
“I focus on making them enjoy it because schoolboy rugby is the time of your life.
“When it’s televised and there are agents and scouts everywhere, it takes the fun out of it. I just enjoy having fun and making sure these guys enjoy their time at school.”
A lot of how Mafi helps the children is shaped by the values he learned in Münster. “Oh, it’s most of it, to be honest,” he insists.
“I’ve learned a lot from a lot of great leaders and world-class players.
“You felt valued, it was something very special. I took that on board. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from, they made you feel welcome.”
Mafi left Munster after winning a Heineken Cup and two Celtic Leagues – a medal haul the current squad is the envy of. The 39-year-old is still following Munster’s progress closely and was captivated by the recent penalty shoot-out loss to Toulouse.
He will travel to Wellington next week knowing it will be like they had never been apart when he meets with the Munster boys ahead of Ireland’s third Test against the All Blacks.
“I think that shows the best of the Irish and Paulie and the Munster team, the connections we have,” Mafi added.
“We are all real people. It was a very special time in our career. The love we have for each other can’t be broken. It will go on like this for life.”
https://www.independent.ie/sport/rugby/munster-made-you-feel-valued-it-was-very-special-41826317.html “In Münster you felt valued, it was something very special”