Chris Masoe: Jerry, Toulon and the next chapter

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Chris Masoe’s mother can now breathe a little easier. She was always the most reluctant of spectators when it came to seeing her son Chris, and boxing brother Maselino sending opponents flying in all directions. After a game or fight, it would be customary to phone home to Savai’i in Samoa, informing her they were safe.

The report would be brief, “we won or we lost”. But now after 16 years Chris has hung up his boots and is avidly taking in all manner of sports looking for any edge in his next chapter as defence coach with Racing 92.

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It has been nine years since he represented the Hurricanes, but as he returned to Wellington and is weighing up his post-playing career, they remember him here. His smile is infectious and as he walked unassumingly into a coffee house opposite where he had just met Wayne Smith for a quick catch up, he was granted a huge honour in this part of the world. He was allowed to sit, for our chat, at Sir Gordon Tietjens’ ever-reserved table.

There is no guard with him. He spoke openly about his struggles over his 16-year professional career and his devastation after Jerry Collins’ tragic death. But then there are the memories which bring this huge grin: when he and Ben Tameifuna drove through Paris in his Smart car, his new interest in sumo wrestling and the first time he met Collins in training and sent him flying back on to his rear.

His hands dwarf the flat white; they are the paws which have carried ball after ball into opposition defences, usually sending them scattering like 10-pins. But it wasn’t a career that came easily.

There was a family expectation growing up in Samoa that he would follow older brother Maselino into boxing, who would go on to claim the WBA world middleweight belt in 2004. But though Chris enjoyed it, he loved the camaraderie of rugby.

“My dad was a boxer and we started a gym on the island trying to get the kids off the street, trying to turn them into something better than getting into trouble,” Masoe told ESPN.

“When I was growing up the whole family was involved and I found boxing is good for clearing the head.

“And when you’re going through tough times, rather than doing something stupid, you put on gloves and go and hit some heavy bags to calm yourself. But I couldn’t make a career of it. That sport is about being by yourself, hard work and discipline. I failed a couple of those areas.”

He was a natural at rugby, bringing in the confrontational and no-fear nature of boxing with the team aspect of the 15-man game.

“It was in my blood. I always tell young kids: do something you love, do something you enjoy.”

Chris Masoe (left) alongside Jerry Collins during the All Blacks Test against England in 2005. Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Masoe was picked up by scouts and taken to Wanganui City College, and then picked up by Taranaki. “The boxing helped: the dedication, the hard work,” but he struggled with being away from the family. “My English wasn’t too good, I was struggling, family ties, home, I managed to get and stay focused on being a rugby player, but I did miss home. It’s always going to be home but it’s tough on the island boys.”

The natural path was to the Hurricanes where he became part of the back-row known as the ‘three bouncers’, alongside Collins and Rodney So’oialo. He remembers his first encounter with Collins; the man who would go on to stand alongside him when he married Gemma.

“We were playing central region rugby. That’s how I met Jerry Collins. At the time Jerry was the captain at 18 with the school rugby team and all I heard was about people talking about Jerry. I was fresh from the island. As a boxer I never felt anything.

“Even at my wedding he told the story where everyone was scared of him, but I wasn’t. I went straight for him, hit him on to the ground, and from the ground he looked at me and said ‘I will get you’. That’s how we became friends.”

It would be a friendship that would transcend oceans and hemispheres, but Masoe would follow him to Europe. It was in 2008 when he made the decision to leave Wellington. He had collected 20 All Blacks caps, had featured in the 2007 World Cup, but was dropped for the Tri-Nations. Aged 28, he decided to head north to Castres.

After just six months, he was ready to come home. He found the cultural shift hard, the training methods out-dated. But with the encouragement of his wife-to-be Gemma, they stuck it out.

“It was frustrating for me but I had good people around me, my wife, good friends,” Masoe said. “I was thankful for the opportunity as if that didn’t happen then I wouldn’t have been a European champion.”

Those honours came at Toulon, the team he joined in 2014. He would go on to win three European titles there, but it could have been a different story.

“My main drive was all about the European titles; Munster came in for me and they always dominated the competition. Munster were only going to give me two years, Toulon offered me three and that’s it. It wasn’t an easy decision, Munster were pretty close, had they offered me three, I’d have ended up in the rain there.”

Instead he journeyed 400 kilometres east to join Mourad Boudjellal’s galacticos. He had garnered a reputation as one of the most destructive back-rowers in the Top 14, and his body continued to defy Old Father Time down on the Mediterranean coast.

Three European titles later, he felt he had at least two more years left in him but then tragedy struck on the morning of their 2015 Top 14 semifinal against Stade Francais.

“In my last year we lost to Stade and the tragedy of Jerry happened on the morning of the game,” Masoe says. “My mind wasn’t in it, I was all over the place. I was trying to focus on what was ahead rather than the past and I turned a page.

“I had good people around me. It wasn’t easy. Most people end up closing themselves off, but my wife didn’t let me. She’s been through tough times, and she got me through it. That’s why I love her really.”

Chris Masoe won three European titles during his time with Toulon. David Rogers/Getty Images

He would play two seasons at Racing 92 and was given the most memorable of send offs at the end of last season. It was time to rest his body, but the competitor in him remains the same.

“Every morning I go to the gym and then I come back and my wife is like ‘what the hell are you doing weights for still?’ But it’s in my blood, and helps my mind.”

Gemma and Chris are now preparing for the next chapter in their life. And it involves seeking inspiration from the most obscure of places.

“One day I was watching the television and my wife walked in and said ‘what are you doing?!’ I was watching sumo wrestling. I was looking at how they keep their knees over the toe and the low position. It was one of those things, how they hold the ground.

“Sometimes I watch a bit of basketball and you get a different technique. Boxing’s my life, but I always watch that. It’s about footwork with basketball and it’s the same with boxing. With basketball it is about timing and space, with wrestling it is about when you take the hit.”

Racing 92’s defence will benefit from Masoe’s huge experience, as will their next generation of back-rowers. Masoe feels he owes a debt of gratitude to the game, but the truth is, rugby has been lucky to have him.

“It’s a gentleman’s sport but you do a lot of what you have to do, and afterwards you become friends. There’s no other sport like it for that. You meet some great blokes and it takes you all over the world. There’s nothing better. I don’t regret anything. I loved every moment of it.”

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