Old Crusader goes to battle for Reds
POOL ONE RACING METRO v MUNSTER:Casey Laulala felt part of something bigger than himself in a fine club career and twice with the All Blacks. Munster are a good fit, he tells GERRY THORNLEY
IF AT first you don’t succeed and all that. Back in 2009, Munster sounded out Casey Laulala before settling on the current Springbok captain Jean de Villiers for a season, and the player himself settled on Cardiff. But three years on, with the Blues obliged to cut their cloth financially, Munster have finally got their man.
Better late than never, for in keeping with some stellar midfield signings in the past, they may well have struck gold here too. The eldest of seven children and the son of a Samoan airline pilot, Laulala’s parents sent him to Jonah Lomu’s noted rugby alma mater, Wesley College, in Auckland, when he was 15.
His path was chosen. Blessed with innate Samoan strength, good footwork, an eye for a gap and passing/offloading skills, in any other era he’d have won more than two caps for the All Blacks, and in any other country he’d assuredly have won more too.
Any more chilled, with his Samoan-infused Kiwi drawl, woolly hat and T-shirt, he’d turn into ice. Almost every answer is accompanied with a smile or a laugh.
Yet beneath this pleasant, easy-going exterior beats a ferociously competitive rugby animal. Laulala is proud of what he achieved with Canterbury and the Crusaders, and of his two All Blacks caps, though it still rankles that there weren’t more, and he desperately wants to be part of something special with Munster.
Successive defeats to the Ospreys and Leinster frustrate him hugely. “It’s exciting but it is tough when you’re not winning. When you’re not winning you analyse all the little things, whereas when you are winning you don’t realise every little detail.”
They’re creating opportunities, so he thinks Munster will score points, though they need to tighten up in defence, commit less to rucks and re-group rather than, as he puts it, chase lose causes. There’s a sense that this is a work in progress, but, damnit, he’s impatient.
“It’s similar to where I came from in New Zealand with the legacy we have had in the last 10 years with Canterbury and the Crusaders. The biggest thing is being part of something bigger than yourself. And as soon as 23/30 guys realise that, the team becomes bigger that it was. They do extra things. I think that is the key to success.”
He feels at home with Munster, all the more so with Rob Penney at the helm. Even before their six years together at Canterbury (2003-09), Laulala was also coached by Penney with the New Zealand Under-19s. “He makes you want to play for somebody. At the end of the day you want to perform for yourself and the team, but also for him.
“He loves his job, and he’s really, really positive but at the same time he’s a realist. He doesn’t hide anything that needs to be dealt with. Sometimes you assume things are going to happen whereas he encourages the boys to try and make it happen. You have to make it happen. You grow as a person and also as a rugby player.
“That ties into your life outside but the ultimate is winning a rugby game,” he adds, with another engaging smile, for fear he is becoming too profound.
When Laulala was born, his dad Eti flew with Polynesian Airlines, before transferring to Air Pacific. “The old man is still flying. He goes to the States, doing big commercial flights for over 30 years now.”