THE AWARDS THAT matter most to players are the ones their team-mates vote for.
Colby Fainga’a was recently named players’ player of the year in Connacht, underlining how big an impact the Australian back row has had since joining from the Melbourne Rebels last year.
Ask the Connacht squad to describe Fainga’a and most of them would say he’s hard-working and skilful.
But first and foremost, they’d tell you he’s a family man.
Fainga’a has won over his Connacht team-mates. Source: James Crombie/INPHO
In all senses, the 28-year-old is very much a product of his upbringing in the town of Queanbeyan, close to Canberra.
His older twin brothers, Saia and Anthony, won 36 and 23 caps for the Wallabies, while middle brother Vili played for Tonga.
Youngest brother Colby recalls the games of touch rugby they’d play every day on the back lawn of their first house, and then out on the road in front of their second house, due to the garden being covered in ‘bindis,’ a spiky weed.
“We were always on that front road, which was fun for us but we were kicking balls into neighbours’ cars and the game was getting stopped every time someone would try to drive through,” says Fainga’a, who is also close to his sister, Hulita. “It was a really active childhood.”
Fainga’a’s older brothers were “extremely influential” for him and there was focused skills training mixed in with the games of touch.
“Basically from the age of 13 to 17, every afternoon we would do half an hour of passing, then do kicking skills, trying to pick up loose balls, working on footwork and stepping. An hour every afternoon and then go out the front and play games. We were a rugby family.”
32-year-old Saia has just helped Declan Kidney’s London Irish to promotion into the Premiership, although Anthony has been forced into retirement due to a knee injury, having suffered the severe effects of concussions.
“It’s not great for him but I think it’s the right time for him to retire,” says Colby. “He’s had a good career and now he’s landed a really good job. He hadn’t been great for a while and he’s got two little kids to think of now.”
Family first – the Fainga’a way.
Colby speaks with great respect about his parents – his dad, Saia, moved to Australia from Tonga at the age of 17, while his mother, Cindy, is Aboriginal Australian – and how hard they worked to support their kids.
“They were full-on busy all the time,” says Fainga’a. “Dad would basically work 20 hours most days, he had a lot of kids to feed. He worked as a butcher, behind the bar of a pub, did security too.
“You learned from him. He was a very hard-working man, three jobs and didn’t complain, just got on with it.”
Saia senior sadly passed away in 2017 on a visit home to Tonga, but the example he set for his boys has left its mark.
It’s no surprise that Colby also puts his family before anything else, with his wife, Loren, and two young children, Georgia and Oscar, having moved to Ireland with him last year.
Loren’s father, Anthony Moore, played for ACT – before they were called the Brumbies – leaving her well placed to critique Colby’s performances every weekend.
“She’s the first one to say if I played well or played badly,” says Fainga’a with a smile.
“She does a little stats count for me, her own stats. Tackles, carries. Then she’ll compare them to what ESPN or the Pro14 has and she’ll say, ‘That’s not right, you did more’ or ‘That’s not right, you definitely didn’t do that much!’”
Fainga’a counts himself lucky to have his wife in his life, particularly given how “incredible” she is with their kids.
Georgia, now two, was born with Sotos Syndrome, a rare genetic condition that causes physical overgrowth during the first years of life.
“The whole uncertainty of her future was a big fright to us,” says Fainga’a. “We had this image in our head of what raising a family was going to be like and then she had this diagnosis and it was completely different.
Fainga’a and his wife, Loren, at the Connacht awards night. Source: James Crombie/INPHO
“It scared us but over time we’ve learned that she has her own personality. Where she is now, she’s doing incredibly well.
“My wife has done countless hours working with her every day and she’s basically tracking with what any two-year-old would be. Other than her verbal expression, she’s doing really well.
“If you had told us a year and a half ago that she’d be where she is now, we would be in shock. I think for us, it’s about letting her be herself. One thing we have learned is that kids just evolve at their own rate.
“What we don’t want to do is label her with this condition and think, ‘You won’t be able to talk.’ So we’re doing everything we can for her to give her the best opportunity she can have. My wife is doing a ridiculous job of that at the moment.”
The family have settled in the coastal village of Barna just outside Galway – “a beautiful place” – and Fainga’a says that living on an estate with its communal park at the heart has been a welcome change.
“Every afternoon it’s packed full of kids and we send Georgia down to go play with the other kids. It’s such a cool little community that we’ve got there and it’s such a different experience to what we ever had in Australia.”
Connacht head coach Andy Friend was the key figure in luring the Fainga’a family from Australia, having been the coach who handed Colby his first contract and given him a Super Rugby debut at the Brumbies in 2010.
Fainga’a remembers being in his St Edmund’s College uniform the first time he met Friend about coming into the Brumbies set-up, having stood out as a major prospect in the schools game.
He followed his older brothers into St Edmund’s, initially playing rugby league and union – Connacht team-mate Finlay Bealham did the same in the year behind him – before he began to get picked for representative teams in the 15-man code.
He recalls playing against Connacht captain Jarrad Butler from as early as U15s level when his New South Wales team clashed with Queensland – “Jarrad was always the big player” – meaning there was more than one familiar face when he moved to Ireland.
Fainga’a  tackles Rob Kearney for the Brumbies against the Lions in 2013. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
Fainga’a played for the Australian Schoolboys and had two years at U20 level, captaining Australia in his second season as they finished third at the 2011 World Championships, that squad also including Michael Hooper, Butler and Tevita Kuridrani.
Fainga’a spent four seasons at the Brumbies but, with David Pocock often ahead of him, opted to join the Rebels in 2014, where he went on to reach 100 Super Rugby appearances four years later.
“That was cool,” he says. “Along the road to those 100 caps, you don’t remember all the games but you remember all the people you played with.
“The countless number of good friends I’ve made has been brilliant. Even here in Ireland now – I played with Joe Tomane and I still talk to him. Scott Fardy, I still talk to him as well.”
Playing for the Wallabies was an ambition and Fainga’a almost certainly would have done so but for being part of the same generation as Pocock and Hooper.
He pushed hard for that next step but when Friend called last year, Fainga’a felt the time to leave Australia was right.
“Wallabies was always the goal,” he says. “Obviously, it didn’t eventuate and I stuck in Australia for as long as I thought was necessary.
“Making the decision to come overseas was purely based on wanting to get some experience outside Australia. My family is still young, the kids don’t need to go to school yet, so this was the right time to do some travelling and get that experience.”
While Fainga’a has confidence in his ability on the pitch, he admits settling into rugby with Connacht was “a slow burner” and there may have been early days when he questioned if he had made the right decision.
Missing the entirety of pre-season as he finished up with the Rebels didn’t help and it took until November for Fainga’a to nail down his starting spot at openside. He’s been superb ever since, enjoying his rugby apart from the moment when Cheetahs centre Nico Lee emptied the contents of his nose onto his face.
Fainga’a sings with Friend and Butler either side of him. Source: James Crombie/INPHO
Of course, the adaptation from the hard track of Australian rugby into the more set-piece focused game in the Northern Hemisphere was a shift. One of the biggest surprises was the necessity to change the length of his studs, having always worn 13mm studs at home.
“I thought 13s were really long. Over here, when I brought them out… our forwards coach, Jimmy Duffy, has been into me since and now I’m wearing 21mm studs, which is almost double. To wear 21s in Australia, you would not do that. It’s crazy talk!”
Initially, Fainga’a found himself occasionally clipping the ground and falling over but he adapted and concedes that the longer studs are useful given the added demands around set-piece that he has become accustomed to.
“Scrum and lineout is huge over here. I’ve never done so many mauls in my life.
“Here, some game plans are just straight mauling. It’s just unheard of in Australia and it takes a bit of getting used to. But at the end of the day, it’s all part of rugby.”
Fainga’a has been able to show his mobility and skill level around the pitch too, linking play superbly for Connacht in recent months as they have earned today’s Guinness Pro14 quarter-final clash away to Ulster – a welcome return to the play-offs.
Off the pitch, Fainga’a feels at home in this squad, having figured out the different personalities and identified what he calls the ‘Larrikins’ – “the guys you can’t keep away from because they’re the life of the team.”
Peter Claffey and Conor Carey, or ‘Chairs’, are the two he picks out.
Fainga’a says it was “an incredible feeling” to be named players’ player of the year last month but stresses that he didn’t dwell on it too much given that this season is not over yet.
He’s hopeful that there are two more games to come after today’s quarter-final in Belfast and he’s keen to see Connacht’s fans rewarded for their support.
“We have quite a small stadium here in Connacht but the fanbase is incredible.
“Even on the days where it’s hailing and the wind’s bloody howling, like the Perpignan game here, it was the coldest and most miserable day I’ve had but the Clan area was still packed.
“To have fans that loyal and invested in the team coming out that day speaks volumes for the kind of people we have associated with the province. There are more diehard fans here than I’ve ever met in my career.”
Gavan Casey and Murray Kinsella are joined by Andy Dunne to discuss all the week’s rugby news.:
Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud
Subscribe to our new podcast, The42 Rugby Weekly, here: