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Enjoyment returns as Atiga learns from past problems

Brisbane, October 24, 2003.

Ben Atiga will face former All Black team-mate Jimmy Cowan when Edinburgh meet Gloucester. Picture: SNS
Ben Atiga will face former All Black team-mate Jimmy Cowan when Edinburgh meet Gloucester. Picture: SNS

In their penultimate pool stage match of the Rugby World Cup, New Zealand are coasting towards a 91-7 hammering of Tonga. With six minutes left, coach John Mitchell decides that it is time to launch 20-year-old Ben Atiga, the All Blacks' latest superstar, a player billed as the new Jonah Lomu, into the Test arena. And thus begins an international career that will last, well, exactly six minutes.

In his home country, Atiga is still remembered as one of the greatest unfulfilled talents. A few weeks after his Test debut, he was named World Under-21 Player of the Year. From his mid-teens, his trajectory had been meteoric, rising rapidly through the New Zealand age-grade sides, his brilliance evident at every level. But then it all dried up.

Not quite, actually. From 2004 to 2008, Atiga was a stalwart of the Auckland-based Blues. From time to time, especially in the early years, it was suggested that he could possibly return to the All Blacks fold, but there was always someone else ready to jump that queue. More and more, the prodigy of just a few seasons earlier was discussed only in the past tense.

Those who had anointed him as the sport's next big thing got it right in one sense only. Battling against a knee injury, mental fatigue and his frustration at the way his career had unfolded (or possibly just folded) he decided to take time away from rugby at the end of 2008. Over the next 18 months, his 14st frame ballooned to something close to 19st. At which point - prompted by an invitation to take part in a charity match - he decided that it was time to shed a few pounds and straighten his life out again.

The story has been told before, but the background does help to explain why Atiga can demonstrate degrees of perspective and insight that are not exactly commonplace among current-day players. Now 30 and playing for Edinburgh, he is well aware that he is in the final straight of his life as a professional, and the sight of the finish line has sharpened his appreciation of what he does for a living. "When I did take a break I was quite drained by the game," Atiga explained. "My head was in the wrong place. Going into a game, I was thinking about the last minute, and I knew if I was thinking like that then I shouldn't be there. It was not fair on the team.

"I stayed right away from it. I kept away from the boys. I was living off my savings but I got into a marketing business with a couple of mates from school just to get some experience. Other than that I didn't want to do anything, I just wanted to get right away from rugby. I knew I had to get away and I did really enjoy myself for a while. One thing I did miss was the camaraderie and I came to appreciate just how lucky I am to be doing something I love, something I knew I was good at."

Atiga talks fondly of the players he grew up with in New Zealand. A few of them are now knocking around the European scene, too, and he enjoys catching up with them for old time's sake. Last Sunday, he faced Jimmy Cowan, the former All Blacks scrum-half who now earns his corn at Gloucester, and Atiga is looking forward to meeting up with him in the return match at Kingsholm in three days' time.

But bonds like these also highlight the discomfort Atiga felt in Edinburgh's fractured dressing room last season. Brought in, partly, to pass on the benefits of his vast experience to the crop of young players who were emerging at the capital side, Atiga found himself in the midst of a fire-fighting operation as results dried up and former coach Michael Bradley struggled to create anything like the esprit de corps that was so energising Glasgow at the other end of the M8. For a while, Atiga wondered if he had made the right decision in coming to Scotland.

"The way the season went we were biting at everything," he said. "It was not an enjoyable environment to be in. It was really tough and a lot of fingers were being pointed all over the place. It was all about trying to stay tight and get around each other. It was hard to go out and encourage guys to go out there and express themselves when we were in a situation like that and where we were trying to break that drought."

New Zealanders are known for taking their rugby seriously, but Atiga was actually unsettled by the hard-nosed intensity of Edinburgh, by their apparent inability to relax. "We are a bit more laid-back in New Zealand, in general terms and in rugby terms," he explained.

Only now does he think that the culture of the club is changing for the better. "It's probably a bit more relaxed now," he said. "[Head coach] Alan Solomons and Omar [Mouneimne, the assistant coach] are quite straightforward. They have the respect of the boys and they definitely keep the guys on their toes, which is probably what we needed this year, but at the same time everyone is encouraged to enjoy themselves.

"Pressure builds every week, especially on this side after last season, so it's about making sure that we enjoy the fact that we're here doing what we love, and appreciating that, and take that mood on the field with us."

And yet, isn't winning by far the best bonding exercise ever invented? "Of course," Atiga smiled. "You can be a great team off the field and a great bunch of mates close as ever but at the end of the day it's the results that count. That's what the public demand and that's who we are and what we are all about. This business is all about performance and that's what counts.

"But my point is that you need to build a winning culture, a tight culture, because that shows on the field when you need to dig deep. It's a fight to the end now and that's maybe the attitude that we were missing last season."

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