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On the loose . . . North Otago No 8 Mika Mafi scores a try during the pre-season game against Southland last month. PHOTO: PHIL JANSSEN

North Otago has been blessed with some very good No 8s over the past 20 years, but Mika Mafi could be something special. The bulldozing loose forward is primed for a big season in the Heartland Championship. Hayden Meikle tracks him down for a chat.

Q How old are you, Mika?
I turned 31 this year. I’m growing up, ha ha.

Q What’s your background? Where are you from?
I grew up in Tonga. My mum and dad are still there. And people can’t believe this but I have 16 siblings. Big family. I have 11 brothers and five sisters. I’m the third youngest.

Q What was it like growing up with so many brothers and sisters?
It was good fun, to be honest. Having a big family is good fun. You get to do lots of things with your brothers and sisters. You’re always in a group, working together. It was brilliant, actually. Mum and Dad were so busy. They did a lot of work for us kids.

Q You enjoyed life in the islands?
Yeah, I did. I went to school at the same time as some of my brothers. Tonga College – all boys. We all sort of looked after each other. We’re all around the world now. I’ve got a few siblings in Australia, and a lot in New Zealand.

Q How old were you when you came here?
After school. I think I was 17 or 18. I came down to Dunedin when I was 21 or so, and I stayed here. The weather is a bit different here, ha ha. Definitely too cold. I still struggle with the cold, but I’m getting used to it.

Q And you’ve got your own growing family now?
Yeah, I’m married, and we’ve got five kids now. The oldest is 8 and the others are 7, 6, 16 months and we just had a new baby last week. Everyone’s all good. Life is pretty busy, mate.

Q Has rugby always been a big part of your life?
Huge, yeah. A big part. I don’t know what life would be without rugby, to be honest. And I think I’ve got the potential to keep playing for a while. I love rugby. I actually also played rugby league. In 2008, I represented Tonga in league. I probably prefer league, but when I came to Dunedin, there wasn’t much league here.

Q You played a rugby test for Tonga in 2016. What do you remember about that?
It was great to be part of the squad. A huge opportunity for me. It’s the level that every player in rugby aspires to get to, and representing my country was special.

Q You’ve played at Mitre 10 Cup level for both Southland and Otago. Is there some disappointment that you haven’t had a longer crack with Otago?
Yeah, to be honest. At the end of the day, it is the coach’s call. But I was a bit disappointed this year. I was involved with the Otago academy training. But the coach said they’d have to wait for injuries to give me a chance. That’s why I took the opportunity to come to North Otago. Last year was a 50-50 year. I played for both Otago and North Otago.

Q How do you think North Otago will go this year?
I reckon there’s a huge improvement from last year, and I think it’s going to be a good season for us. We’ve got a lot of good players, and everybody understands their roles.

Q What does your future hold?
I want to play really well for North Otago and try to make the Heartland XV. That’s a big goal. I’ve always thought about playing overseas, but it can be hard when you haven’t played at a top level like Super rugby. I’m doing some work in security, and I’ve thought about trying to get into the police.

North Otago v Buller
WCS, Saturday, 2.30pm
North Otago: Hamish Slater, Simon Lilicama, Paul Tupai, Taina Tamou, Frank Kelly, Josh Buchan, Inoke Naufahu, Mika Mafi, Filipo Veamatahau, Junior Fakatoufifita, Pita Sinamoni, Jared Whitburn, Kelepi Funaki, Sam Sturgess (captain), Ralph Darling. Reserves: Jake Greenslade, Tom Furnival, Anthony Amato, Mat Duff, Glen Sturgess, Tyler Burgess, Matthew Vocea.