Orène Ai’i back at 42 for the American club he coaches


A string of unfortunate injuries, a competitive spirit and a bit of faith was enough for former New Zealand Sevens star Orene Ai’i to dust off his old playing shoes again.

At 42, Ai’i came out of retirement to play for the Major League Rugby club he coaches in the United States and is now two games away from his unexpected return.

Ai’i told 1News that the body was, unsurprisingly, a bit sore after seven years away.

“Recovery time for me at this age is key,” he said.

“I’m not saying it wasn’t key for me when I was younger, but you still need a few days to recover from the weekend.

“But my competitiveness and competitive mindset hasn’t changed, so it’s more around what I do in the week to get to that starting line.”

After a strong start to the season, LA Giltinis won their first four matches, disaster struck the side with multiple injuries in first place.

Things got worse when the club’s final point guard, Luke Burton, suffered the injury in the warm-up for last Saturday’s game against Austin.

With no one left in the reserve, Ai’i sided with him.

“Last year as assistant full-backs coach and skills coach and with the way MLR is set up with Covid and how limited we are in bringing people in, I just stepped in and provided opposition and numbers in training,” he said. .

“It was a good way for me to keep fit but fast forward to this year we lost a few key players so without breaking the salary cap they looked internally and because I was training and that I was keeping myself in a pretty good condition, they came up with the idea and for me, being a competitive person, I accepted so that’s where I am.

“I never thought I would come back to play, but the only reason I’m able to do so is because of the strength and guidance I get from my faith and being able to contribute to my team like that, c is a blessing.”

He admitted staying fit in training was a lot different from being fired in a competitive game.

“Obviously getting knocked down in a real game is a bit harder on the body and mentally, honestly, I was a little nervous at the start of the game, but once I got going and found my pace, the boys were taking care of me.”

View from the other side

Orene Ai'i performs a haka with the New Zealand Sevens men's team after winning the 2005 Wellington Sevens event.

Ai’i has carved out an impressive rugby career since making his provincial debut with Auckland in 1998. He won a Super Rugby title with the Blues in 2003 as well as multiple World Series Sevens crowns with the New Zealand side. Zealand between 1999 and 2005.

Alongside his team triumphs, Ai’i was also named Sevens World Series Player of the Year for the 2004-05 season, before leaving New Zealand to accept contracts in Japan and France.

After traveling to San Francisco in 2016 to compete in the first professional rugby competition in the United States, Ai’i eventually transitioned into coaching with the intention of creating a resume that could one day lead to international employment.

His first steps involved both club and high school rugby before bigger opportunities began to arise, leading to a skills and academy coaching role with current MLR champions LA Giltinis, last year.

Since then, Ai’i has enjoyed building and adding to the environment of the defending champions, although he also gained new perspectives during his brief return from retirement, having to exchange hats during practices before the last game of the team against Utah this weekend.

“The coaches meet early in the morning for their meeting, so I’ve been there for last week, then last week was my first time at a players’ meeting – I was officially allowed in.

“We talk about what we’re going to do during the week in training as coaches and then I put on my player hat and go out and execute what we talked about.”

Ai’i said he was reminded of the “subtle differences” in the environment from a player’s perspective now that he’s gearing up again.

Orene Ai'i watches while coaching the LA Giltinis.

“The pressure is a bit higher because of the expectations of the technical staff and the group,” he said.

“And then obviously as a coach, it’s up to us to make that clear so that the players are all on the same page.”

While a full return to the game isn’t on the cards, Ai’i joked that his recent comeback inspired another sports star to come out of retirement on Monday.

“I was joking with my wife last night when we got home, I mentioned that Tom Brady was out of retirement and she said, ‘really?’

“I was like, ‘I think I inspired him to come back’ and we laughed about it.

“But for me, I’m in this position because of the situation our team is in at the moment until these boys come back.

“But when those boys come back, I’ll be more than happy to take over the coaching role and get the cones out.”

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