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Afoa:  I’m trying to add more with ball in hand

Bunty Afoa has always epitomised the back-of-the-fence, run-it-straight ball-carrying props who are so much a part of Vodafone Warriors folklore.

With his trademark long hair trailing behind him, he immediately evokes memories of Hitro Okesene, the trailblazing cult figure in the club’s debut season in 1995.

Ever since a small army of prototypes has followed.

Iafeta Paleaaesina, Richard Villasanti, Jerry Seuseu, Mark Tookey, Sam Rapira and Agnatius Paasi quickly come to mind. Run hard at the line was their motto, often with little thought for self-preservation.

So it has been for the 25-year-old Afoa who has been plying his fearless trade across 84 NRL appearances for the club since his 2016 debut. With all the subtlety of a sledgehammer he has smashed into defensive lines relentlessly, consistently adding punch especially as an impact player from the bench.

If nothing much has seemingly changed over the years, Afoa is striving to bring about some variations this season.

He provided a taste of it in the opening round against Gold Coast last year, his first NRL appearance since 2019 after missing all of 2020 following an ACL injury.

In a slick move early in the second half, he ran onto a nice ball from Chanel Harris-Tavita, breached the line and deftly off loaded to Kodi Nikorima for a try that took the Vodafone Warriors out to an 18-0 lead. A try assist for the big man was a revelation.

Afoa is working hard to bring more of it in 2022.

“I really want to improve my game this year,” he says.

“I came back last year from a season out with my ACL injury. I narrowed it down that if I’m on the bench I’ve got to make real impact; if I’m starting I have to start with some punch.

“We’ve got great middles here with Adds (Addin Fonua-Blake), Lodgey (Matt Lodge), Bangs (Tohu Harris), coming back from an ACL, and Jazz.

“Wherever I’m needed I’m there. If my job is to start or on the bench I don’t mind, as long as I go on the field, do my job well and come out with the win that’s all that matters.

“I want to bring what I’m good at and that’s running but with a bit of difference. I’m trying to add more to my game with ball in hand, a bit of an off load and some footwork. The game has changed. It’s a bit faster now and I’ve had to adapt to suit it.”

The thought of the Covid pandemic forcing the Vodafone Warriors to be based in Australia for a third straight season is of no concern.

“The big difference is that everyone has their own place, their own homes now,” says Afoa.

“It’s our third year here. We can’t complain or come up with any more excuses about where we’re staying. All the boys are settled into their houses.

“Every year our goal is to make it into the top eight and that’s what the team’s striving for.

“It’s a fairly young squad. We don’t have a lot of old heads like we usually do but we have some young energy coming through.”

For all that it’s the oldest head in the team – the 31-year-old Shaun Johnson – who excites Afoa the most.

“He’s been awesome," he says.

"It’s good to see him back in the squad. He’s always been a Warrior and to see him around the young ones has been good.

“He played his best footy when he was at the Warriors and to have him back to lead us around the field is huge.”

For now Afoa feels the anxiety levels building among the squad ahead of the trials, the first of them against Melbourne now just three weeks away on February 19.

Acknowledgement of Country

The New Zealand Warriors honour the mana of the Indigenous peoples of Aotearoa, Australia and the Pacific. We acknowledge the traditional kaitiaki of the lands, elders past and present, their stories, their traditions, their mamae and their mana motuhake.

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