From playing at World Cup to joining the Force: The mental struggle that saw All Blacks star leave NZ
Most front-row forwards get better as they inch towards 30. But for Atu Moli, the former Chiefs prop felt like he was trapped in a 40-year-old body and repeatedly told his young family he was “done”.
Indeed, after three years of frustration, Moli – the youngest All Blacks forward at the 2019 World Cup (24) – considered hanging up the boots.
Weighed down by the expectation of being an ‘All Black’, and failing to live up to his expectations, the 28-year-old – the Western Force’s new big-name recruit – faced a mental crisis in the years after going to rugby’s showpiece event.
Now, having temporarily forgone his dream of playing for the All Blacks by leaving New Zealand to sign with the Force, Moli believes a sea change is exactly what he needed to rediscover his love for rugby.
“From playing with the All Blacks and ending up here [in Perth], at the start it was quite hard because you always have that dream to continue in the black jersey, but, at the same time, I was having a lot of mental breakdowns and was worried about what’s going to happen to my future,” Moli revealed in an exclusive interview with The Roar.
“It got to a point where I needed to decide for myself and not just what the typical norm is that ‘Oh, you’ve made the All Blacks, now you have to stay there because you’re an All Black’ and have that on your belt.
“I was just ready for a change and wanted something different.”
It’s the first time Moli has opened up on his three-year mental challenge, which culminated with the versatile front-rower being in and out of the fast-improving Chiefs side that made a strong run to last year’s Super Rugby final.
“I always talk to my wife about it, but I’ve never talked to the rugby world about any of this stuff,” he said.
“I just started opening up to my parents and family and what I was going through.
“For me, it was putting the pressure on myself and needing to be that ‘All Black’ player on the field and needing to stand out and perform well, but my body didn’t allow me to be great. That took a mental toll with everything that was happening with me and my career, and I wasn’t in love with the game anymore.
“It got to the stage where I was starting to think that I’d hang up the boots, not just because of selection but injuries.”
A short tour to Perth with the Chiefs in early June was the catalyst behind Moli’s defection to the Force.
While the Chiefs beat the Force well to scutter Simon Cron’s hopes of making the finals, Moli got talking to his long-time friend and former teammate Chase Tiatia and was taken aback by the home team’s ambition and their vocal supporter base.
“I like being in the team that’s got that status of being in the underdogs,” he said.
“Then playing them last year, I loved it when we were playing them at home. The fans they have, it’s something that excited me when I was making the decision to sign.”
Moli’s arrival in Perth is a significant one for Cron’s side, with the Force regularly blown away at the set-piece regularly last year as their lack of depth was exposed up front.
Capable of playing on either side of the scrum, Moli will help shore up their scrum issues after being schooled by the All Blacks’ former scrum coach Mike Cron – the uncle of Force coach, Simon.
“I’m definitely loving his [Cron’s] style of coaching and he’s quite a character,” Moli said.
“He kind of reminds me of the ‘Scrum Doctor’ [Mike Cron]. He gives me his kind of vibes. His coaching style. He’s not easy on the boys, but he’s hard and wants the players to be better.”
Moli’s arrival at the Force hasn’t been welcomed by everyone in Australia.
While Rugby Australia chief executive Phil Waugh is an advocate of being “creative” to ensure their five Super Rugby franchises become more creative, others believe players like Moli are simply taking up a position that Australian rugby must not just fill, but improve their stocks in.
The arrival of former All Blacks Maori lock Tom Franklin has similarly seen some question the Force’s methods of filling their squad.
But Moli, who would never have considered playing for an Australian side until recently, believes the trans-Tasman rivals can help each other out more.
“When I was young, I was against it, but now, it’s almost like we should help each other,” he said.
“When Australian rugby players go over to New Zealand and play, they have the best time of their lives and it’s the same thing for us New Zealanders or, at least, for me.
“I know our rugby levels, we’re different in the way we play, but it’s just good learning. It’s just another skill.
“I was surprised when I first came here. The athletes they have here in Australia and the Western Force, they’re outstanding. They’re fast, strong, fit. You’ll have a couple of boys back in NZ but in Australia, it seems like everyone is fit.
“I think just being here in the moment and just how they approach things with their rugby, that’s surprised me.
“You can see the difference between New Zealand and Australian rugby. Here they do a lot of running. They do a lot more running than back in NZ. That’s been a shock to the system.”
Despite still playing in Super Rugby, Moli has effectively ruled himself out of playing for the All Blacks again by signing with the Force because of New Zealand Rugby’s eligibility laws.
Moli said the eligibility rule annoyed him, but added he knew full well that he was foregoing the chance of playing for the All Blacks by heading across the ditch.
“It’s excluded me out of the picture with the Abs, but I knew that coming over here,” he said.
“I’m just keen to play some good footy and show them that I’ve still got it.”