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09:51 17 February 2016

Rugby: Mafi's fairytale rise to top continuing at Bath

By Rich Freeman and Rhyannon Bartlett-Imadegawa
BATH, England, Feb. 17, Kyodo

Fourteen months ago Amanaki Lelei Mafi was lying in a hospital bed wondering if he would ever play rugby again, having dislocated his hip in a Top League game for NTT Communications Shining Arcs.

On Tuesday he was holding court at one of the most famous rugby clubs in England, having days earlier become just the third Brave Blossom to play in the English Premiership.

"Everyone saw Amanaki Mafi play at the weekend, he was sensational," said Bath coach Mike Ford. "He was phenomenal. I mean he made 19 carries. I can't remember the last player for Bath, I don't think anyone's made 19 carries in my time."

Mafi's recovery from injury, his devastating form at last year's Rugby World Cup and his recent marriage reads like a fairytale and for the 26-year-old arriving in England with his new bride was just a continuation of that amazing story.

"First time I thought it was a castle," he said when asked about Bath's clubhouse.

Though just like Kensuke Hatakeyama, who is currently plying his trade in Newcastle, the English weather did give him something of a reality check.

"It's pretty tough due to the weather. It's windy, so cold, but I'm getting used to it," he said.

Mafi played second division rugby in Japan for Hanazono University, but with the help of club coach Rob Penney, has developed into one of the most feared ball carriers in the world.

"I like rugby, give me the ball and I run, that's all," is his simple take on the game.

Ford, however, sees a lot more to Mafi, noting "the way he retained the possession in the ruck, and gave us good clean ball, and the way he defended as well, and did some impact tackles."

"He had a bit of rugby awareness about him, he's not just a guy who just runs at the nearest defender, he's got a merry side step or whatever, but he was good to watch."

Catching up with Hatakeyama when Bath play Newcastle on March 18 will allow the two Brave Blossoms to take one another on on the field and compare notes on life in England off it. Though Mafi was taking nothing for granted.

"I first have to be chosen for the team, but I'm looking forward to it," he said.

And while it is still early days, Bath are hopeful Mafi will decide to extend his contract beyond this season.

"There's an option there," said Ford. "The deal was just until the end of the season, and then 4 or 5 weeks into that we sit down and talk about the future. But that's an option."

Mafi too admitted it was a possibility.

"Maybe. I decided I was definitely going back (to Japan) before I even came here. Now I am a little torn."

==Kyodo

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