‘I couldn’t blame them for saying ‘Who the hell is this guy?’

Life comes at you fast. Just ask Taine Plumtree. One day last summer, moping at being overlooked for the Blues back row, he accepted an invitation to play for his Old Boys university side in Wellington, with a crowd south of 150 people, even if you counted the dogs milling about, hopeful of a few scraps from the nearby burger van.

The next game he laced up his boots for was quite different.

As he ran out of the Principality Stadium tunnel 12,000 miles away in Cardiff, a visceral wall of noise hit him ahead of one of the oldest rivalries in world rugby, as over 66,000 fans, mostly clad in red, welcomed him onto the field for a tear-up with England. Plumtree made a favourable impression. Rangy, athletic and with deft hands, he helped carry Wales home, as they emerged 20-9 winners. Standing on the pitch, basking in a hard-fought victory, few would have begrudged him taking a moment to consider how his life had flipped on a phone call.

Not that the roller-coaster was over. Far from it.

The first clues that his services were required in Wales came when Scarlets head coach Dwayne Peel got in touch, after he was tipped off that the back-row was out of contract with the Auckland Blues. “I knew that down the line I wanted to play overseas so when Peely got in touch and went over the finer details, I was pumped and expected to head over in November, but then I got a message from Warren (Gatland) asking if I wanted to join the pre-World Cup warm-up camps.”

Taine Plumtree went from a crowd of 150 to 66,000 in a matter of weeks (Photo by Ian Cook – Getty Images)

Cue pandemonium and an adrenalin-fuelled dash around New Zealand to pack up his affairs and get set for the chance move to the land of his birth. “The Wales call meant I had to get out of my contract in about two weeks and fly over. I had to get all my stuff from Auckland, go back down to Wellington, pack my bags. It was a whirlwind.”

If that wasn’t enough for the then 23-year-old, he then had to meet the entire squad at the airport knowing the vast majority would have no clue who he was. “I have to say, it was a bit intimidating. I stood there with headphones on, trying not to go into my shell. I couldn’t blame the lads for saying, who the hell is this guy? I remember seeing a lot of big names like Dan Biggar, Liam Williams, George North and Leigh Halfpenny that I’d only seen on my phone before. The Scarlets boys heard I was joining them so they backed me – Mosh (Ryan Elias) was the first person to come up to me and shake my hand.”

Despite impressing with his tentative steps in the Welsh environment, Plumtree picked up a shoulder injury against England at Twickenham, and doubts over his fitness saw him missing out on World Cup selection on the toss of a coin with Welsh warrior Dan Lydiate. With the returning Taulupe Faletau guaranteed a place, he’s circled Australia 2027 as his next shot at playing in a World Cup.

There was always going to be a bit of noise about me coming over and being thrust into the Welsh squad. I was expecting it. I feel like that’s given me an extra incentive to do well.

Growing up for the first three years of his life in Swansea, Plumtree already had an inkling of what lay in store when the words ‘Welsh’ and ‘rugby’ are put together. “The Welsh are a proud nation. They’re unbelievably passionate. Chicken (Gareth Anscombe) told me to learn the Welsh national anthem before the England game. I know it’s frowned upon if you can’t sing Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau. I was gutted to miss the World Cup squad but lucky enough to have a few warm-up games. There was a part of me wondering, ‘have I done enough?’ Of course, the shoulder injury didn’t help but I gave it my best shot.”

Reflecting on being parachuted into the World Cup reckoning, he feels grateful that he rode the usual social media discourse about his suitability to wear the three feathers without too much bruising. “Listen, there was always going to be a bit of noise about me coming over and being thrust into the Welsh squad. I was expecting it. I feel like that’s given me an extra incentive to do well. I know ‘Chicken’ experienced something similar.”

Taine Plumtree
Plumtree has worked hard to get back on the field, adding 4kgs more muscle (Riley Sports Photography)

With another promising outing against the Barbarians in November, where he scored his first try for Wales, many knowledgeable pundits were speculating that Plumtree would be a key part of Warren Gatland’s Six Nations plans. But after excelling for the Scarlets in a narrow loss against the Lions, he damaged his shoulder and joined rehab club for a four-month return to play programme. “I had a torn labrum which basically put me out for four months. Coming into the season we knew it was a risk but I chose not to do surgery. It’s an occupational hazard playing a contact sport.”

His circumspection is unsurprising given his background. Plumtree led a peripatetic childhood, moving around with his father’s vocation as a rugby coach. “After Wales, we moved back to New Zealand where dad coached the Wellington Lions, but in 2007, we moved over to South Africa while he was coaching the Sharks. In 2013, we moved to Dublin for a year when dad was working with Joe Schmidt, before returning to New Zealand to finish my schooling. My extended family are from Taranaki, where the Barretts grew up.”

When Gats got in touch, dad said, ‘keep your head down, work hard and do it with a smile on your face. Just go for it’

A gifted sportsman, he led an outdoorsy childhood. In Durban, he would spend all of his time at the beach or barefooted playing rugby, while in Wellington, it would be spear-fishing, diving and immersing himself in nature. It was only at 16 that he decided to give rugby a proper shot. “I was playing a lot of cricket too, as a fast-ish bowler, which helped with my hand-eye co-ordination, but I had to make a choice. I started knuckling down at school then and started thinking about going pro.”

Even so, nothing has been gifted to the affable Kiwi. He was overlooked for New Zealand Schools, making what he saw as an inferior New Zealand Barbarians XV. His resolve was tested with his non-selection when at the Blues. The knockbacks didn’t crush his spirit, however. “It is tough, but I’d always go to dad for advice. It’s great having someone that close to you knowing so much about the game. He and I know that rugby’s not forever. He’s been through it all and has had to put boys like me through it too. He understands how the system works. He just said, ‘your opportunity will come’ and when Gats got in touch, he said, ‘keep your head down, work hard and do it with a smile on your face. Just go for it’.

Taine Plumtree
Plumtree spent his formative years with the Auckland Blues (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Go for it, he did, taking the rough with the smooth, and in the days after his operation, he spent time in Surrey with wider family recuperating, but was mostly nursed by flatmate Aki Sali, the Dragons prop. “It’s been my longest injury. The timing of it was pretty shit but it’s flown by and everyone at the Scarlets has been so helpful. I set myself a few goals to nail while I was out. One of them was to put on weight, so I’m now just under 115kgs (18st). It’s a bit of Sali’s cooking and hard work at the gym with the S&C boys. Fortunately, I don’t think my speed or fitness has dropped at all.”

The return of Plumtree, along with the likes of Jac Morgan, Dewi Lake and Christ Tshiunza, is welcome news for a beleaguered Warren Gatland, after a winless Six Nations, and will also bulk up the Scarlets back row. To have Plumtree competing with Tshiunza (22) and potentially Dragons back-row Ryan Woodman (21), will give Wales precious strength-in-depth in a problem position.

I’m comfortable with the ball in hand and back myself as a kicker, so if Ioan (Lloyd) has a sore hammy, or Costy (Sam Costelow) is struggling with a knock, give me the ball.

Indeed, Gatland name-checked Plumtree on several occasions during the Six Nations, as a player he thought had the ability to improve Wales’ depth pool. “That’s cool, I didn’t know that,” said a surprised Plumtree on being told about Gatland’s comments. “I haven’t really thought about Wales because my sole focus is getting back for the Scarlets and helping the squad. Obviously, I’d love to be involved in the summer, but I need the minutes to put my hands up for Humphs [Wales forwards coach Jonathan Humphreys] and Gats. I want to give the Scarlets supporters something to smile about. It’s been a tough season.”

As for the areas of his game he’s been focusing on, his application at the breakdown is high on the list. “I’ve been working on my work over the ball. It’s not easy for taller players to do that. As a loosie, you need to have all these skills in your arsenal. Attacking-wise, I used to play as a full-back, but slowed down a little so at 15, I moved up to the second row.” With his experience as a back, Plumtree is adept with the softer skills. “I’m comfortable with the ball in hand and back myself as a kicker, so if Ioan (Lloyd) has a sore hammy, or Costy (Sam Costelow) is struggling with a knock, give me the ball,” he smiles.

Taine Plumtree
Plumtree’s athletic gifts have been missed by the Scarlets in a chastening season

On the other side of the ball, Plumtree says there is still much work to do to turn him into the complete back-row. “I think my defensive reads need working on, then there’s moving bodies and those real big contacts. It’s a mindset. Winning collisions in defence is what I’m trying to get better at. Hopefully with a bit more weight, I’ll be able to do that. It’s about building one component at a time. That said, I don’t want to spend too much time on perceived weaknesses to the detriment of the parts of my game I’m good at.”

He may not have made the big show in France, but Plumtree’s eyes light up as he marvels at the game’s pinnacle last autumn. “All pro rugby players are students of the game, but jeez, the World Cup was amazing. The France versus South Africa quarter and the New Zealand versus Ireland game was ridiculous. I was watching the French game in a pub with mates and we were going, ‘wow’. That’s the sort of environment any player wants to test themselves in.”

They are such a great group of boys. It now feels like a home from home for me down West. Obviously, we’ve had a bad run of losses, but the spirit is good.

As for players to emulate, one player stood out. “It’s hard to look past Ardie Savea. The way he can move bodies, how he gets in the positions he does – you think, how has he done that? To see him moving Eben (Etzebeth) around like he does, is ridiculous. He is so strong. Then you have Pieter-Steph du Toit. He was just smashing bodies. He must have had something against Jordie Barrett the way he was folding him in the final.”

Like any other self-respecting Welsh professional, off the field, he has settled into the comfortable surroundings of Pontcanna in Cardiff, a Scarlets enclave housing Gareth Davies, Jonathan and James Davies, and previously the now departed Johnny McNicholl. Despite a hugely disappointing season on the pitch, he says the squad have stuck together. “Apart from Wyn Jones who tries getting me in trouble, I can’t think of one person I haven’t got on with. They are such a great group of boys. It now feels like a home from home for me down West. Obviously, we’ve had a bad run of losses, but the spirit is good. We’re tight-knit. We have to put a run together for the last few games of the season and end positively. We did it last year.”

Taine Plumtree
Plumtree represented the All Blacks at U20 level (Photo by Amilcar Orfali/Getty Images)

His comeback starts this Saturday against Edinburgh before a week later, he faces his father for the first time in a professional capacity as the Scarlets host Sharks. The chat has already started. “I’ve never faced dad in a professional capacity, but there’s already a bit of banter about it. I told him that it could be an inhospitable welcome in Llanelli and he’s told me his front row were looking pretty fearsome, so let’s bring it on.”

With his laid-back bonhomie, sizeable frame and healthy dose of perspective, Plumtree could yet be an asset to Wales for years to come.

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