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From The Pitch to the Premier

It’s not every day you meet a parishioner who has spent the last year making a film with Hollywood’s elite in Cape Town, South Africa! Isaac or ‘Zak’ Feaunati, a parishioner at Holy Trinity, Sutton Coldfield, Birmingham, has been doing just that.

Zak FeaunatiZak was chosen by Clint Eastwood to play the All Black legend Jonah Lomu in his new film Invictus, starring Hollywood A-listers Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. The film, released on 5 February by Warner Brothers, tells the inspiring story of how Nelson Mandela used the 1995 Rugby World Cup as an amazing opportunity to bring a divided nation together through a sport which was in many ways a symbol of racial division and hatred.

I meet Zak in a Costa Coffee on a rainy Friday morning in Sutton Coldfield. He has amazing presence, not least because he is 6 feet 2 inches and 18 stone. But strikingly he is remarkably gentle and unassuming. Zak, who was born in Wellington, shares how rugby has always been an important part of his life: ‘I’d say if you’re from New Zealand pretty much 90 per cent of families are involved in rugby. I grew up in a family that watched it, played it and loved it. It’s our national sport, so if the All Blacks lose it’s a sad day in New Zealand.’

It’s not every day you meet a parishioner who has spent the last year making a film with Hollywood’s elite in Cape TownHe remembers first playing rugby when he was three or four. He took to the game like a duck to water and played for all the Catholic schools and colleges he attended. He says, ‘I was quite tall back at school so I had to play second row a couple times. But my number one position was Number 8. It’s one of those things in New Zealand, once you get to college, that position was your position all the way through.’

Zak feels blessed to have played the game professionally. He played his first top-level game for Wellington at the tender age of twenty and went professional in 1996, joining the national Samoan team. He was spotted after Samoa beat Ireland in 1996. An agent called him up after the game and invited him to play professionally for London Irish where he stayed for several years before joining Bath. He only recently retired from Bath’s first team, after having played 131 games.

Zak pictured with his familyZak is married to Catherine and they have four children, all girls: Ella (age 9), Maddie (age 7), Amelia (age 6) and Zara (age 4). Zak and Catherine were both raised in the Catholic faith, something that is very important to both of them. ‘Catherine and I were brought up in good Catholic families. We were always encouraged to get out of bed and go to church on Sunday. We don’t hide our faith. I talk about it at school, and I’ve talked about it over the years in my rugby career. Faith in sport is seen as a personal thing and people are very good and respect it.’

Last Christmas, working on Invictus meant that he had to stay in England while his family went home to New Zealand. On Christmas Day he volunteered to deliver Christmas dinners to housebound parishioners. ‘I went to two or three families. It was definitely a great experience. Fr Gerry, our parish priest, encouraged us to spend about half an hour talking to them. You know what, when you’re driving there you’re just thinking, what are you going to talk about? But the conversations are really good and I really enjoyed it.’

We move on to talking about the film and how it all came about. Zak is typically unassuming and understated about it. His journey began on the playing fields of Bishop Vesey Grammar School, Sutton Coldfield, where he now coaches rugby. One day, out of the blue his good friend David Barnes, Chairman of the Professional Rugby Association (PRA), rang him and said: ‘Clint Eastwood is looking for someone to play Jonah Lomu – would you like to cast for it?’ David is well known as a practical joker and Zak thought this was just one of his stunts. Later that day, however, he received another call from the PRA, ‘No really – would you be interested?’ (This time it was not Barnes but his secretary, who is not a practical joker!) A week later, Zak was in a casting studio in London. ‘I remember thinking I’ve got no experience, I’ve got no chance.’

He was interviewed for twenty minutes by casting director Fiona Weir. As the interview drew to a close she asked him if he could do the ‘Haka’. Zak said: ‘Well, yea, of course I can.’

A few days later Fiona e-mailed him and said that she was very impressed with his interview and that she was going to recommend him to Eastwood for the final decision.

When asked, if he met Matt Damon he replied without the slightest pretence, ‘Yea, we had the odd poker night, he’s a top bloke.’Zak takes up the story: ‘I was at home, just chilling with the family on a Friday afternoon. We were all playing on the Wii, and the phone rang and it was a lady from Warner Brothers, saying “Congratulations, the job’s yours.” It was all surreal, it just happened so quickly. We sat down that night and just froze – I mean, you get a text message saying Clint Eastwood is very impressed with you and he’s decided he’ll give you the role in his next film. And then Warner Brothers are talking to you about all these packages, flights and contracts. It was amazing really. I left a week later for Cape Town and was there for six weeks.’

Zak describes the whole experience as like being in another world: the red carpet, expensive hotel rooms and even his own caravan. When asked, rather enthusiastically, if he met Matt Damon he replied without the slightest pretence, ‘Yea, we had the odd poker night, he’s a top bloke.’

There’s something very humbling about Zak. Speaking to him you would never guess that he’d spent last summer chatting with Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood, and relaxing with Matt Damon under a glorious South African sun.

Our interview draws to a close. The rain outside turns to a downpour, but Zak has to leave for a coaching session back at Vesey Grammar School. Meeting Zak Feaunati has been a real pleasure and a privilege. He is a sporting hero, a man of faith and a great role model.  

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