Edinburgh Rugby today announced that All-Blacks’ back Ben Atiga will join the side next season from Super 15 side Highlanders on a two-year contract. Of course, they say “All-Black” because it sounds good in press releases but Atiga has a solitary cap as an injury replacement in the nation’s 2003 Rugby World Cup campaign, for his part of the side’s ruthless pool stage destruction of Tonga (91-7).
However the 28-year-old arrives with a wealth of Super Rugby and international Sevens experience and provincial championship success, as part of an all-star Auckland Blues side from 2004 to 2008. In that team he played alongside fellow All Blacks Joe Rokocoko, Keven Mealamu, Luke McAllister and Ma’a Nonu, as well as Isa Nacewa and Doug Howlett – in a spell which also saw the province lift the Air New Zealand Cup three times (2003, 2005 and 2007).
A New Zealand age-grade prodigy in the midfield, Atiga’s trophy-littered career kicked off when he left Auckland Grammar School in 2003, when he lifted the IRB’s Junior World Championship trophy on his second and third outings in the tournament, reaching the semi-final in 2002, picking up the Junior World Player of the Year award in 2003 and captaining the side to glory in 2004.
His international honours were followed by his four-year tenure at the Auckland Blues before pulling on the famous black jersey once again, this time at Twickenham for Gordon Tietjens’ HSBC Sevens World Series winning New Zealand side of 2007.
Having lived the high-performance lifestyle from his school days, he quit playing rugby after the 2008 provincial season, but made a remarkable comeback in 2010 to shed 20kg and return to the Auckland ITM Cup side which made the semi-finals.
Subsequently he earned selection from the Otago regional side to the rejuvenated Highlanders, marking his return to Super Rugby and playing a crucial role in ending a 30-year drought for the south islanders at Eden Park against his former province, Auckland, a record which he had spent his formative years battling to protect.
When the historic Otagu Union was recently hit by financial crisis, Atiga opted to take voluntary redundancy and seek out a new challenge, at which point the call came from Edinburgh Rugby.
Edinburgh Rugby head coach, Michael Bradley, said: “Ben [Atiga] has proven his ability on some of the toughest stages in world rugby and will be a formidable option at centre and full-back for Edinburgh Rugby for at least the next two seasons.
“He’s a very impressive package of agility, power and skill, accommodating 100 kilograms of muscle into a 5’10” frame, and I believe he’ll make a big impact at this club, both from a performance perspective but also in bringing on the many talented young players we have at the club.”
Atiga’s arrival, which is subject to visa, is the latest to be welcomed by Edinburgh Rugby who’ll have at least six new recruits next season, with Scots qualified Nothampton Saints back Greig Tonks (back/centre), Welsh internationalists John Yapp (prop) and Richie Rees (scrum-half), Georgian Rugby World Cup number 8, Dimitri Basilaia, and Super Rugby prop WP Nel already secured.
Bradley is undoubtedly being canny with his budget and seeking out players of the right age and experience to help plug the gaps in Edinburgh’s squad and grow depth while allowing room for the youth that has done him so well this season. (I would hope they’re still looking for another second row to add to the roster from the club game or further afield). From a Scotland perspective you might grumble about opportunities for Scottish players, but if you were an Edinburgh fan I would think you’d be pretty happy with some of the signings.
Ben Atiga comes with undoubted pedigree, but he has been out of the spotlight in the last few years and drifting in and out of top-level rugby. In addition to the well-documented affiliation between Scotland and New Zealand, the Kiwi explained his fondness for his new home was harboured in three separate tours to the country, making the decision to join an easy one.
“It all happened very fast, probably in the space of about three weeks,” explained Atiga.
“The club were very interested in what I could bring to the table from a playing perspective but Michael [Bradley] also explained that he would be looking for me to play a leadership role and help bring on young Scottish players, a role which I’ve played with New Zealanders for the last couple of seasons and one which I’m looking forward to doing for Edinburgh Rugby.
“I toured Scotland with my school in 2000, with New Zealand Schools in 2001 and was based in Edinburgh with the New Zealand U20 side in 2004, when the Junior World Championships were in Glasgow, so it’s reassuring to have experienced my new home through rugby already.
“Playing rugby overseas has always been something that’s appealed to me. I’ve had loads of calls from fellow players at home and abroad telling me how beautiful the city is and how lucky I am to get this opportunity.
“I’m delighted to have signed and now just looking forward to getting on the pitch for my new club and doing my best for Edinburgh Rugby.”
On paper he looks a great signing, and if Atiga can have the same sort of impact as Nacewa or Howlett have on the Irish provinces they have graced, then Edinburgh will have done well, and perhaps found a new cult hero.
Ben Atiga (28)
Born: 5 May, 1983 in Auckland, New Zealand.
Height: 1.80m (5’10”), weight: 100kg (15st 10lb)
Provincial debut: Auckland v North Harbour (2002)
Super Rugby debut: Blues v Chiefs (2004)
International honours: New Zealand U19, U20, Junior All Blacks, All Blacks (1 cap, v Tonga in 2003)
Super Rugby caps: 46
Super Rugby points: 75 (6 tries, 6 conversions, 11 penalties)