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Irish Independent
Irish Independent
Cian Tracey

The French tanks aiming to scuttle the Irish scrum in crucial battle at the Aviva

Uini Atonio

Uini Atonio and Paul Willemse have a lot more in common than just providing the bulk of France’s ferocious scrum power.

Between them, the pair tip the scales at a whopping 270kg, which, needless to say, is an enormous amount of weight on the tighthead side.

That Atonio (145kg) and Willemse (125kg) have reached a point where their weight is no longer seen as an issue, but rather embraced by the French, is a testament to both players proving the doubters wrong.

In a sport increasingly dominated by big collisions, size matters, but it’s what you do with it that really counts.

Not only have Atonio and Willemse had to battle to find the optimum playing weight, they’ve also made France their home after leaving New Zealand and South Africa respectively.

It will come as no surprise to learn that, growing up, Atonio and Willemse were always far bigger than their peers, but that didn’t always count in their favour.

In Atonio’s case, he played No 8 until the age of 18, which helps explain his silky ball-handling skills.

​By the time Atonio was making the transition into adult rugby, his size became so great that coaches felt they had no other option but to play him as a prop – and so began his transformation into one of the world’s leading tightheads.

Although he was born and grew up in New Zealand, Atonio represented Samoa, the country of his parents, at the 2009 Junior World Cup in Japan.

A seventh-place finish, thanks to a 9-3 win over an Ireland team that included the likes of Jack McGrath, Rhys Ruddock and Ian McKinley, highlighted Samoa’s quality, yet unlike many of his team-mates and opponents, Atonio’s career was much more of a slow burner.

Working as a landscaper and playing with Counties Manukau, Atonio lost his contract, which prompted him to make the fateful decision to leave New Zealand for France.

This was two years after the Junior World Cup, and while others were already beginning to make their way into international squads, Atonio’s career was hanging in the balance until La Rochelle offered him a lifeline after then-head coach Patrice Collazo spotted him during a tournament in Hong Kong. However, this wasn’t La Rochelle in its current guise as European champions and Top 14 heavyweights. Instead, the club was languishing in Pro D2.

Atonio decided to roll the dice, and as much as he proved to be a great fit for the club, the club was also a great fit for him.

Three years after joining La Rochelle, Atonio played a key role in the club’s promotion to the Top 14 in 2014. Since then, they have gone from strength to strength under Ronan O’Gara, with Atonio there from the start, through thick and thin.

The 32-year-old is part of the furniture at La Rochelle, with the feeling very much mutual, which is evidenced by Atonio having the club’s crest inked on his arm.

That same year he helped send La Rochelle back to the top flight, Atonio earned his first of 48 French caps, having qualified for his adopted nation on World Rugby’s three-year residency rules.

Willemse’s path to the blue jersey is very similar in that he too failed to make the grade back home. South Africa have never been short of big, powerful locks, yet Willemse is one that got away.

France's Antoine Dupont, left, and giant prop Uini Atonio celebrate after their team's win over Italy in Rome. Photo: Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters

Although he was born in Pretoria, Willemse spent much of his childhood in Namibia, where his mother was born. Having caught the eye for a Namibian underage side at the famed Craven Week, Willemse earned a contract from the Lions and looked set to push on through the South African system, only it didn’t quite work out.

After overcoming an opening loss to an Ireland U-20s side led by Tadhg Furlong, Tadhg Beirne, Iain Henderson, Jack Conan and JJ Hanrahan, South Africa bounced back to win the 2012 Junior World Cup on home soil.

Much was expected of what was a very talented team that included the likes of Jan Serfontein, Steven Kitshoff and Pieter Steph du Toit, all of whom went on to win multiple Springbok caps. However, despite being a key part of that success, Willemse was overlooked by Heyneke Meyer for the 2015 World Cup, which left him at a crossroads.

Like Atonio, Willemse moved to France after being deemed ‘too heavy’ for Super Rugby. Grenoble, under Bernard Jackman, was his first stop before he joined Montpellier in 2015.

Since then, the 30-year-old has become a mainstay in the Montpellier engine room and made his France debut in 2019, again via residency.

It took time for Willemse to establish himself, but now that he has, himself and Atonio have formed a devastating partnership that will really test Andrew Porter on the loosehead side of the Irish scrum on Saturday, especially without the injured Furlong.

As well as the gigantic duo being central to their clubs’ historic success last year, La Rochelle winning their first Champions Cup and Montpellier clinching their maiden Top 14 title, they were also front and centre to Les Bleus’ Grand Slam success.

France will arrive in Dublin locked and loaded, but for all the flair contained in their electric back-line, their assault will start up front, where very few teams can cope with the power of Atonio and Willemse.

The heavy artillery are on their way. Ireland have been warned.

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