Rugby Championship: 12 questions with All Black David Havili - 'I didn't know whether I would play rugby again'

By Patrick McKendry

All Blacks midfielder David Havili speaks to Patrick McKendry on overcoming the odds, changing positions, passing the time on tour and his most competitive teammates.

You returned to the All Blacks this year after playing three tests in 2017 and then spending three years out of the environment. Was the key to your consistency for Tasman and the Crusaders a burning desire to return to the black jersey or simply focusing on the NPC and Super Rugby?

In the back of my mind was definitely a desire to get back in that All Blacks set-up. For me it wasn't about thinking too far ahead. I had strong focuses on what I wanted to get out of the competitions, especially at the Crusaders, so I could keep pushing my case. The illness didn't help, but it just grew my hunger even more. Then came a few offers to go overseas. I had good chats with friends and family and Andrew Goodman, the Tasman coach. At the end of those conversations, I felt I still had a lot more to offer. I didn't want to leave New Zealand rugby without giving it my best shot and that probably helped me set some higher goals this year in Super Rugby to keep pushing my case to get back in the black jersey.

David Havili. Photo / Photosport

You had emergency bowel surgery due to an infection last year – that must have been a shock.

It all happened so fast – probably within three days I was under the knife for major surgery not knowing whether I was going to be able to play rugby again. I was happy to wake up hearing the surgeon, who did a great job, saying I'll make a full recovery. A section of my bowel was removed. If I'd left the infection another 12 or 24 hours it could have been a lot worse – I could have lost my whole bowel.

I'm thankful to the medical team at the Crusaders for checking me out so quickly. It's maybe a lesson for others. I was lucky to have experts around me but men in general can be staunch and try to brush pain off. When I started to feel sore I went to the doc. It's being able to put your ego on the hook and listen to your mates around you as well. I was in hospital for a week.

I thought it was appendicitis and I rang mum to say I was going into hospital, but she was at work and didn't get back to me until three o'clock that afternoon. She said "no you don't have an appendix, it was taken out in an operation when you were six months old". It was then that I knew it was definitely something to do with my bowel because I had a similar surgery at the same time back then. I lost a lot of condition. I went from 95kg to 84kg. I was skin and bone and didn't eat much for six or seven days. When I first ate anything substantial I was very ill for a couple of days. Every time I was sick the stitches in my stomach tore, which put me off eating even more. In my case it was 'thank God for Covid' because it gave me a chance to get my body right and play Super Rugby again.

Being seen as a utility can be a hindrance but you've turned it into a strength. Deep down did you feel you could play second-five as equally well as fullback?

I didn't see myself playing in the midfield. I hadn't played there regularly since school. I didn't think I could play to my potential in the midfield and it wasn't until this year when the Crusaders coaches said I could be playing there because we were quite short there that I saw it as an option. It took a couple of games to adapt, particularly around defence. Once I started stringing performances together I started to enjoy it and I'm grateful Razor (Scott Robertson), Scott Hansen and Goody (Goodman) made that transition for me.

David Havili with his family after winning the Super Rugby Aotearoa final. Photo / Photosport

You've now scored six tries in five tests. What compelled you to join the driving maul for the first of your two against the Wallabies in Perth?

I'm not too sure. I've spent a bit of time with Jason Ryan, the Crusaders forwards coach, and any time there's a chance the boys could get over the line, his advice is to just join in. It looked promising but I wasn't expecting to get the ball from Ethan Blackadder, I was just expecting to add weight to try to get him over. He shifted me the ball so I snuck over.

What's your favourite rugby memory?

There are a few. Making my All Blacks debut against Argentina in Buenos Aires would be up there. Probably the one that sticks out for me is captaining the Tasman Mako to our first premiership in 2019. It's special because I'm a home-grown local boy who loves playing for Tasman.

Your dad, Bill, was a wing for Nelson Bays. How important has he been in your career?

He paved the way for me and my brother William. He came over from Tonga in 1994 and played rugby for Riwaka which is a small club team out Motueka way, then he moved across to the Nelson club which is where I played. Whenever Nelson Bays was playing I was always at Trafalgar Park watching or being a ball boy. Rugby has been a huge part of my family's life. My uncles have all played rugby at provincial level as well.

What other sports did you play as a kid and when did rugby take over?

I played touch rugby, cricket, volleyball. In year 13 I went from Motueka High School to board at Nelson College after I got a scholarship and that's when I realised I had to put other sports on the backburner and focus my energy on rugby. That's when I got linked into the Tasman academy and it carried on from there.

David Havili evades a Wallaby tackle. Photo / Photosport

What you be if you weren't a professional rugby player?

I am about two years into a builder's apprenticeship. Whenever I'm home I get around my brother, who is a qualified builder, and pick his brains, because it's been a while since I've been on the tools. When I was younger and building I definitely didn't want to do an inside job or an office job. I wanted to be hands on – so something in that space, whether it's carpentry or so on. That would be my first pick.

Switching off will likely be important over the next few months for the All Blacks. How do you do that?

Good question because at the moment we can't do a lot as we're in a 'soft quarantine' in Perth, but we've been doing our best. For me it would be golf and hopefully we can play some rounds when we move to the Gold Coast. Recently we've been doing a few indoor nine-hole putting competitions. Beaudy Barrett made a course in the team room so we go around and record our lowest score. That's been fun. On training days there's not a lot of down time. Usually on our days off I try to get away and play golf or check out the local sights.

Whose idea was it to swap jerseys with Wallabies loose forward Pete Samu after the Perth test and was it planned?

Yes it was planned, we've been speaking about it for a while. We both started playing for Tasman in 2015 and we've known each other for a long time. We flatted together for six years. It was cool to get his jersey – one for the pool room, definitely. My other All Blacks jerseys are hiding away in mum's closet. When the family comes around for Christmas, they like to check them out.

Two tests against the Boks are looming. What are your memories of the only other time you played them – the narrow victory in Cape Town in 2017?

It was a close game – a 25-24 win for us. I was on the bench and there had been a few injuries. I think Beaudy had gone off for a head knock and Nehe Milner-Skudder had done his shoulder so I was on there earlier than I expected. We had quite a young back three at the time – me, Damian McKenzie and Rieko Ioane. It was to and fro throughout and the crowd was very loud. I was happy to play a part in Damian's late try. Being able to secure it at the end with a penalty from Lima Sopoaga was pretty clutch from him. That jersey is framed at home. It was an epic experience.

It's probably a crowded field, but who's the most competitive All Black?

Like you said, there are competitive buggers everywhere in this team. Probably the halfbacks – all four of them, including Finlay Christie. They're competitive in everything they do. It's good - it keeps everyone on the edge. We're not here to come second.


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