Around the Fringes: John Ulugia
Photo: SPA Images
At a time in rugby when the scrum is under more intense scrutiny than perhaps ever before, with people incensed by the amount of restarts, calls to remove the hit, and endless discussions as to each referee’s varying interpretation at every engagement, it is refreshing to find a player who’s simply happy to sing the praises of this dark art.
The front rowers club has long been a mutually exclusive environ, and those that take pleasure from attempting to grind an opponent’s face into the dirt can only expect any nods of recognition amongst their own kind. For HSBC Waratahs hooker John Ulugia, it’s the most intense, uncomfortable but exhilarating part of his job.
“It’s definitely confronting but exciting as well. The challenge of getting over your opposition front row is very exciting and to get on top of them is pleasing. I see it as a challenge every week for me now, and there’s technical aspects of scrummaging that take a lot of working on and I’m still learning from Michael Foley who was a specialist in that area.”
Foley’s name crops up a lot when you ask Ulugia about his time at the Tahs. It’s clear he has a lot of respect for the former Wallaby. “He’s one of those unique coaches where he’s been there and done it at the top level for so many years, so to have someone that’s actually had their head in the scrum and knows where the pressure’s coming from, it’s a pleasure to be coached by him.”
Having started the season as third choice hooker, injuries to Tatafu Polota-Nau and Damien Fitzpatrick have seen Ulugia’s stock soar in recent weeks with a starring role against the Western Force two weeks ago. Pilloried before the game as a potential weakness for the Perth outfit to target, the 24yr old rose to the occasion, not only performing his requisite tasks admirably but also snatching the match winning try in the 69th minute. It is a night he won’t forget in a hurry.
“It was my first try in Super Rugby but it didn’t really sink in until the next day that it was a match winner, I was just shocked. To run out there and to play 80 minutes was a big thing for me and to come away with the try as well. It was a massive relief given all the pre-match build up and it was very pleasing to come out on top.”
Born in Auckland of Samoan heritage, Ulugia grew up in Melbourne, and his first sporting steps were taken with the Sherrin, not the Gilbert. “I played a bit of AFL in school and enjoyed it heaps but I guess it wasn’t my game. I wasn’t built for it, I wasn’t fit enough for it and my kicking skills weren’t up there. Having a Polynesian background, my Dad took me to the local rugby club in Moorabbin and I met a guy named Steve Curnow (now club President) who preached to me about rugby and about life, and he’s still a big part of my life now.”
Having started out as a no.8, his size saw a suggested change to the front row at the age of 16 when he arrived at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra. Time in the Victorian Schoolboys side led to a tour with the Australian Schoolboys and from there, he picked up a spot with the Brumbies, making his Super Rugby debut back in 2006. After six years in the nation’s capital, he set up a permanent base in Sydney, the home of his club side Southern Districts, and it was his performances for the Rebels that brought him to the attention of New South Wales.
Ulugia offers a lot to the HSBC Waratahs in terms of flexibility. He can play both sides of the scrum (although tighthead is his preference) but it’s as a hooker that he made the breakthrough this season. There are perhaps only two functions in the game that see a player put under the spotlight as an individual, one is a kick for the posts and the other is the hooker’s throw into the lineout, and Ulugia is realistic about the pressure of the role.
“It’s hard but it’s something you learn to cope with as you play the game. For me personally, it’s all about getting through that first throw and if I hit the mark perfectly, the lift’s right, the height is right and they jump to the height they normally jump to, then it’s just the consistency of hitting the mark throughout the game and that’s where you take your confidence from.”
With seven Super Rugby caps currently to his name for the HSBC Waratahs, he is keen to cement himself as a permanent fixture at New South Wales for the coming years. His recent penning of a two-year contract extension is testament to the belief he has in himself and the faith shown in him by the coaching staff.
One thing’s for sure, should he add to his tally of one try in Super Rugby in the near future, he won’t be attempting to outshine the celebrations of his cousin, Wallaby and Queensland Reds winger Digby Ioane.
“That’s not a front-rower sort of thing.”
Original version published in the NSW Waratahs v Lions match program on May 21st, 2011