Can Aumua buck unwanted trend?

Asafa Aumua in action for the All Blacks against the Barbarians in his test debut at the weekend....
Asafa Aumua in action for the All Blacks against the Barbarians in his test debut at the weekend. Photo: Getty Images
Asafo Aumua has now joined a select group of individuals who have played for the All Blacks before they have featured in Super Rugby.

Other members of this group include Jerome Kaino, Isaia Toeava, Jason Eaton, Saimone Taumoepeau and but for injury, Luke McAlister would have toured Europe with the 2004 All Blacks before being picked by the Blues in 2005.

With the exception of Kaino, there is a thread that binds these early bloomers - which is none pushed on to fulfil their potential.

Aumua may be in what appears to be an elite club - but is one that hasn't necessarily proved to be much fun for any of its members.

Their respective stories read much the same way, which is that they were all picked from relative obscurity, thrust into the national spotlight and then struggled to cope with the rarefied atmosphere they encountered.

What the coaches learned, the hard way perhaps, is that being an All Black comes with a relentless pressure and the expectation can crush even the most ferociously talented.

The coaches had promoted players who they could see had the physical ability to play test rugby but with so little exposure to the professional game - the routines, the training demands and the analysis - those plucked from age grade and provincial sides were overwhelmed.

Toeava was the most extreme example. He was picked on the Grand Slam tour of 2005 having played only three games for Auckland. He was still a teenager and he owed his selection to his performance at the Under-19 World Cup that year where All Blacks assistant coach Wayne Smith had been in attendance.

Toeava was a gifted utility back and the All Blacks coaches wanted to fast-track him into their 2007 World Cup plans.

But his life experience was next to nil when he first toured and his shyness was crippling. He simply wasn't ready to be an All Black and early promotion to the national ranks arguably hindered rather than helped his development,

It dented his confidence to the extent he didn't make the 2007 World Cup squad.

While he won 36 test caps before he headed overseas, he never managed to win a regular starting place or become the international force that in 2005 he was forecast to become.

Eaton wasn't so different. He was an equally surprising selection for the 2005 Grand Slam tour, having not alerted many to follow his progress while toiling away at lock for Manawatu then Taranaki.

But like Toeava, he wore an All Blacks jersey before he had played for the Hurricanes and like Toeava, Eaton also never developed the way the coaches had hoped.

He never quite settled into the disciplined world of professional rugby and as a result never came to much as an All Black.

Taumoepeau was perhaps just a poor selection at a time when there were limited options. Only a few months before he made his début against Italy in 2004, he had been balancing shifts at a freezing works with training and playing for Auckland.

The All Blacks coaches reckoned his explosive power at loosehead was something special and so they pulled him straight out of provincial rugby.

He made one more appearance for the All Blacks after that 2004 tour but there's no doubt that the coaching staff cooled on him after they had seen more closely what he was all about.

Even Kaino, who played for the All Blacks against the Barbarians in 2004 before he had been picked by the Blues, took another four years to justify the hype.

He didn't win his first test cap until 2006 - playing twice against Ireland in June that year - but was dropped, only resurfacing again in 2008.

He became the exception - the only one of those picked early by the All Blacks who was able to show the resilience to stay there and flourish.

Aumua is like all the other members of the club in that he has made a compelling case to be a test player by what he has shown in age grade and provincial rugby. He's a stunning athlete and a great rugby player in the making.

But that is no guarantee he will push on and actually be a great rugby player and enjoy a long All Blacks career.

His future will be determined by his ability to cope mentally with the demands and expectations of life at the highest level. His career will be shaped by his ability to stay grounded and accept and relish all the challenges that come with being a professional player.

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