Amongst Munster fans, he was a divisive figure. Capable of moments of magic, but prone to lapses in concentration. 144 appearances over six seasons would have made many players heroes in Thomond Park, but Lifeimi Mafi never quite managed to achieve that status. When Munster announced the signings of James Downey and Casey Lualala, it was time to move on.
Relocated in Perpignan, Mafi’s first season in the Top 14 has been a success. He looks a better player in his new surroundings and has rapidly won over USAP’s fans.
36 appearances and six tries in all competitions make this the most prolific season of Mafi’s career in terms of playing time and scoring. At Munster, the ex-New Zealand underage international was seen purely as an inside centre, much to the disagreement of some. At Perpignan, his game time has been split between the 12 and 13 jerseys. The USAPistes Supporters Club say most fans prefer to see Mafi in the wider channel:
“Lots of us prefer him at 13, outside Sione Piukala. But David Marty is the undisputed starting 13 in the eyes of the coaches.”
These sentiments are backed up by Mafi’s displays when chosen at outside centre. Himself and Piukala managed to tear Clermont’s defence apart earlier in the season when partnered together (video below). Both of Mafi’s Top 14 tries came when he was fielded at 13.
Regardless, the Tonga-born centre’s overall form has impressed. His skill set stands out for Perpignan, in particular the one-handed offloads which we saw glimpses of at Munster. At USAP, Mafi is completing 3 or 4 offloads per game. Watching him buzz around the pitch in that inimitable running style of his, the 30-year-old seems far more at ease than he did at Munster. This is being expressed in the confidence of his passes and offloads. (Check out this incredible pass!)
Equally, Mafi’s success rate could say something about the support play offered at Munster, an aspect that frustrated Lualala up until the closing stages of the season. Whatever the reason, Mafi’s increased creativity helped Perpignan to sixth place in the try-scoring standings for this Top 14 season. The USAPistes rate him as one of their most effective attacking elements:
“Mafi is a very good attacker. He’s lively and clever. He knows how to make ground when he has the ball.”
Defensively, Mafi’s time at Munster was pockmarked by a few dangerous tackles and several instances of rushing out of the line to the team’s detriment. He could hit hard, but there was always a sense of not knowing what he was going to do. At Perpignan he has calmed in this regard. He still puts a hit on when he has the chance, but it’s far less common to see him shooting up headlessly.
For USAPistes, defence is “not necessarily the strong point” in Mafi’s game. The highlight reels going around France at the time of his move featured his most spectacular hits, and it was something that was expected from him at Perpignan. French fans appreciate a crunching tackle nearly as much as a skillful try. Mafi’s defensive game is more subtle now.
Signed to replace France and Toulon centre Maxime Mermoz, Mafi has had an excellent first year at USAP. He’s contracted until the end of next season and so far there’s nothing to suggest the club will be bringing in new centres this summer. The move to France has been a successful one, with Mafi showing facets to his game that never really flourished at Munster.
Photos: Ivan O’Riordan.