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.”
Born in Moto’otua in Samoa, Laulala is the eldest of seven. “I like to say I paved the way,” he says, even if Laulala senior played what his eldest calls school rugby and “social rugby” in Samoa. “He wouldn’t agree with me but I think I paved the way for rugby as well.”
But he is indebted to his father, and mother Avarua for sending him to Wesley as a border for four years before moving into a house which his parents had bought as an investment. Though his mum and dad would visit, it was the making of him. “It makes you stand on your own two feet and at the time I think I needed that as well. I owe a lot to the school and my mum and dad for having the guts to send me to New Zealand.”
One of his five brothers, Nepo (20), is a tighthead prop with Canterbury, winning the ITM Cup last season under Penney. “He’s a big boy, and quite athletic as well. He is amazingly strong.”
His own breakthrough was being picked for the New Zealand Under-19s, who won the World Cup in Chile. From then on he believed he could be an All Black.
From there he broke into the Counties Manakau side. “Playing against Wellington at the time there was Tana Umaga, Christian Cullen and Jonah Lomu. And here was a 19-year-old kid playing in the centre. Not the easiest position to play,” he says, laughing. “We lost, but it gave me the belief that, you know, I can really do this. Straight after that I got picked for the Crusaders, and the rest is history.”
In the next six years he was on three Canterbury ITM Cup winning sides and three Crusaders Super Rugby tickets, in 2005, ’06 and ’08, his All Blacks debut coming against Wales on the end-of-year tour in 2004.
“I was part of that ‘transition’; that was the youngest All Blacks team ever. Getting the jersey (from Umaga), singing the national anthem, a full stadium of 75,000 people. That black jersey. I gave it to my dad. The first one, I think, should be good appreciation for the old man. ‘There you go, dad.’ It went so quick. They (the coaches) were so happy with the way I went, but that kind of hurts as well.”
He followed that up with a try in the All Blacks’ 41-17 win over the Barbarians at Twickenham, but for the ensuing All Blacks trial the following June, he found himself on the Possibles bench, effectively seventh or eighth choice in the midfield pecking order given Umaga was sidelined and Aaron Mauger would come back into the picture.
In the ensuing Tests, the selectors permed two from Mauger, Umaga, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith before settling on Mauger and Nonu in the Tri-Nations, and although Laulala would win a second cap against Ireland in Auckland in June 2006, he was mostly confined to playing for the Junior All Blacks.
Laulala played a starring role for the Crusaders in ’06, famously scoring the only and decisive try in the Super 14 final against the Hurricanes (19-12) at Jade Stadium, aka The Gorillas in the Mist, when the fog became so heavy that spectators couldn’t see the far side of the ground and television had to put commentators in both stands.
Playing outside Dan Carter and Mauger, with Richie McCaw as captain, and other greats like Brad Thorn, Chris Jack et al, coached by Robbie Deans, can’t have been bad? Carter’s distribution?
“Always on a plate. But the forwards always did the job as well. When I was there Deansy (Robbie Deans) gave me the licence to roam and use my feet, and then you had Dan controlling the game.”
After a third Super Rugby crown in four years, his second cap came in the second Test of Ireland’s June tour in 2006, in Auckland.
“I wanted that so bad, because I never wanted to be a once-capped All Black,” he says, laughing at himself. “It was okay, but it was rainy and cold.”
All Blacks’ number 1,048, being seen as a specialist outside centre, albeit a damned good one, didn’t help, and Laulala was unfortunate his career coincided with first Umaga and then Smith.
“Conrad would never make any mistakes. He’s a good support runner, a good decision-maker, whereas my game is more about having a go and popping up here and there. But Conrad’s work-rate is amazing and at the end I had to accept it and move on.
“It was tough. You give everything for it and then you don’t get any rewards at the end. Even now I really want to play international rugby. Looking back now I wish I had more Tests,” he says, this time the smile being more rueful. “But two is more than most ever have. It still hurts a little bit when I watch the boys play, but at the same time it’s not like we’re footballers; one contract and we’re set up for life. And I had my daughter (Mischa), and I thought it was time to make some money.”
So he and Lydia headed to Europe with Mischa, who is four now.
He could have gone to Racing and Paris, but when he broke his arm in July 2009 playing a club game, Cardiff were the one team that phoned him to ask him how he was.
“To me as a person, knowing that someone cares about you, that goes a long way,” he explains. The Cardiff years were good. “I loved it. Long-term friends there, but doing the same thing here. I’m loving it already.”
The slagging is relentless, so he tries to keep his head down. “I want to keep a clean sheet. I don’t ever want them to have anything to bite on, and so far so good. But I’m not going to let my guard down.”
He’s been bowled over by the passion and the support, and senses the craving for more glory. “I want to do well, because we’ve got the team. The legs are still good. No injuries,” he says, tapping the wooden table, “and just like Crusaders and Canterbury, when I was part of a great era, and that’s creating your own history. In the past, Munster has a great history, but you’ve got to make your own from now on.”
Yeah, no less than the Crusaders, he wants to be part of a legacy here. “I’ve got two years, and I’m planning on winning the Heineken. That’s a big call,” he admits with a smile, perhaps wondering if he should have kept it to himself. “But you’ve got to aim for something.”