Rugby: Edinburgh deal allows Ben Atiga to make up for lost time

Edinburgh unveil Ben Atiga as their latest signing ahead of the new season
Edinburgh unveil Ben Atiga as their latest signing ahead of the new season
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Ask, say, Chris Paterson to talk you through every move of his international career blow-by-blow, and the starting appearances alone in 109 caps would equate to six days and four hours of conversation.

In the case of new Edinburgh Rugby signing Ben Atiga, our interview lasted thrice the four minutes he played for New Zealand against Tonga during a sole appearance as a last-gasp substitute at the 2005 World Cup.

This is not to denigrate the achievement and plenty would relate to the legendary Bill McLaren’s admission that he would have given up all of his commentating status for “two minutes of international rugby in a Scotland jersey”.

Rather, it is to demonstrate, in the words of 28-year-old Atiga, how his experience imbued him with a lifetime commitment to delivering high standards on and off the pitch.

“What does it mean to be an All Black?” the man who was singled out by 2007 Lions coach Sir Clive Woodward in advance as the player he most feared could spike his tourists’ guns (in the event they were queuing up to do exactly that) asks rhetorically.

“Well, being an All Black means the expectation everyone has of you to be the best.

“That is what the All Blacks stand for and that is the expectation. When you are put in that environment it makes you a better player. It’s a great team to be a part of and looking back I definitely learned a lot.

“I carry those with me and have throughout my career; I regard myself very fortunate to have been a part of it.

“Obviously, you have the All Black tag wherever you go. Once you step onto that field in a black jersey you realise if you are good enough to have made it you are good enough to stay there and you put pressure on yourself to do that.

“That’s what helps you become a good player and you have to be consistently good every year. We hold these values very high, we all do.

“Once it happens it is the highest achievement in rugby. I enjoyed it but I am where I am now and that is what is most important.

“I appreciate the expectations put on me but, at the end of the day, mine are higher.

“I love the pressure. I embrace the pressure because it can’t be high points all the time. That is why we play.”

It is well documented that Atiga was capped in controversial circumstances, aged 20, when the Kiwi coaches effectively snubbed pin-up boy Christian Cullen, and many felt through no fault of his own he was caught in the fall-out.

Atiga’s career never hit the heights predicted for him and he even drifted out of rugby for a spell. Now returned fully over a troublesome knee problem and rejuvenated by his break, Atiga has fulfilled a pledge to himself that he must play abroad.

“It is a fresh start being in a new country, a new competition, a new environment. I’ve got to go out and prove myself again which is what I want to do.

“Coming here was something I maybe should have done aged 24 or 25; I always told myself I was going to go overseas.

“Then I woke up and found I was 28. All I regret is not coming in my mid-20s and the challenge now is to repay Edinburgh Rugby for the faith they have placed in me.”

In fact, Atiga has visited with Auckland Grammar, New Zealand Youth and the All Black Under-21s, who lifted a world cup in Scotland during a trip which taught him about the global village.

“Since arriving in Edinburgh, I have met with Lee Jones who was unable to tour with Scotland this summer through injury and who said that when he was 16 he attended that world cup final in Glasgow and had a photo taken with me.

“Lee’s promise to show me the photograph has helped make me even more welcome.

“It is going to be a big season especially with a Lions tour at the end and one of my best rugby memories is playing for Auckland when we just lost to the Lions in a great game in front of a capacity crowd.

“I still have the Lions jersey I swapped at the final whistle.”

And however short his Test career might have been – so far – Ben will be able to show younger colleagues his medals.

Or, as he recalls: “Tonga chipped through right on our line and I was playing full back covering for Mils Muiliana when I came round, slid and scooped the ball up.

“I had regained the ball and took it up, set the ruck and we cleared to touch. Final whistle. That was it. One touch. But family flew across to Brisbane to watch.

“I felt so proud – as any player who fulfils the dream of representing his country always does.” Rightly so.