Casey Laulala proving his worth to Munster
Laulala admits to lacking confidence in first year with the province
For much of last season Casey Laulala did not really look like the class act Munster had acquired. In the previous three seasons Laulala had been Cardiff’s go-to man, his footwork and offloading being a constant reference point for their attacking game.
But with Munster, it seemed as if Laulala was constantly trying to prove himself.
Capped twice by the All Blacks in a vintage era for New Zealand midfield play, what with Tana Umaga and then Conrad Smith taking ownership of the number 13 jersey, nonetheless Laulala had been a standout performer with the Crusaders in his six seasons there. He scored 20 tries in 61 appearances, including the match-winning try in the 2006 Super 14 final.
Yet he struggled to transfer this pedigree in a Munster jersey, often straining every sinew to make breaks and/or offloads which didn’t go to hand. Until, that was, Munster’s Heineken Cup quarter-final win away to Harlequins and semi-final defeat to Clermont.
Then we saw that Laulala is indeed a big player for the big games; his elusiveness sparking Munster into life against Harlequins in the build-up to Ronan O’Gara opening their account, while his thunderous tackle to scythe down Mike Brown towards the end of the first-half was one of the game’s defining moments.
Laulala looks back now and concedes frankly: “I was lacking a bit of confidence as well. You can play this game for a long time but when you got to a new environment, it’s almost like you have to start again and get used to the guys.
‘Putting the head down’
“Also, with us, there were a lot of new guys, new faces, including the coaches, that itself was hard enough. Then a few injuries at the start kind of knocked my confidence. From then on it was a case of putting the head down and working hard.”
“So the confidence was really down in the first half of the season. We gradually shook things down and got the balance of our game, you know, the old Munster and the new stuff we were trying to do, and it kind of came together in the knockout rounds.
“I got my own confidence up and we obviously had a lot of faith in what we were doing and in each other. We’ve got a really talented team so it was just a matter of finding each other, and we really put it in those knockout games.”
With that end to last season behind him, Laulala feels far more at ease in his Munster surrounds, and of what is expected of him on the pitch, when to have a go, and when to pass. A good pre-season and injury free start to the campaign helped.
“For myself that’s a real bonus, having a good pre-season and a year of doing what we’ve been trying to do. We went into this season running, not having to learn new things and I’d like to think, confident from what we achieved toward the end of last season.”
Which begs the question as to what the hell did go wrong last week? “We watched the game back and we did well in a lot of patches but they (Edinburgh) kept ticking the scoreboard over and next thing you know they had a sniff off the game and then things didn’t go very well in the last 10-20 minutes.
“ Edinburgh deserved their win. They threw everything at us. But we didn’t help ourselves by knocking the ball over and giving away silly penalties at crucial times.”
The net effect is to leave Munster in cup mode. “We have to win. We’ve got no other choice. We put ourselves in that position. Gloucester are a good team but we’re back at home now and our mindset is in a good place.”
As well as feeling better on the pitch, Laulala and his family are also more settled in Douglas in Cork, with wife Lydie having given birth to a second daughter, Iris Rose, as a younger sister to five-year-old Mischa, only nine weeks ago. “Lydie is good friends with Doug Howlett’s wife, and they have stayed on in Cork, and now we have two girls. It’s meant a few earlier nights and a few earlier mornings, but life is good and we’re very happy here.
“We didn’t get back to New Zealand this summer but we’d had two weeks in the sun before Iris Rose was born and we have been able to see more of Ireland. It really is a beautiful country. We did the Ring of Kerry on a sunny day and we just stopped and took in the views. On a clear day you can see forever.”
Extend his stay
Now 31 and, he says, feeling as good as he’s ever felt physically, Laulala is in the second of a two-year deal with Munster. Ideally he’d love to extend his and his family’s stay in Munster but is shy about declaring it too boldly.
“I really believe that we’ve got something special here with this group of players and I want to carry on and see where it takes us. We’ve shown glimpses of what we can do, and if you ask any good team it’s the time you have together that counts.
“The Leinster team had been together for a number of years and at the time when Munster were really good those guys were together for so long. And that’s the key to a successful team, that consistency of guys coming through to propel this great history that we have in Munster.”
As a former All Black, he’s regularly reminded of some of that history. “Oh yeah, they let me know,” he says of Munster’s famous win in 1978. “And when I ask: ‘You guys must have had a hell of a party?’ they say: ‘Yeah, and we’re still partying’.”
The Heineken Cup dipped into that history and created a new vibrancy, making these weeks special in the province.
“The support we get here is just amazing. People get behind it and also the noise when you run out and for the rest of the game – bar when there’s a kick for goal – you feel the electricity in the air when it comes to the Heineken Cup. We will need all of that on Saturday, because it’s a must win game for us.”
Stem the flood
Laulala had three good years in Cardiff, making friends for life, but he finds it sad that the Heineken Cup and their regions has nothing like the same cachet in Wales, and that the Welsh RFU cannot stem the flood of best players abroad.
“They’re still having that battle, like you always hear with the Blues which of the Lions boys might be leaving. It’s really, really sad.
“They have to fix it some time. The Irish Union have managed to keep their players in the country and I think that has really helped the growth of the game here, and the Welsh could really learn from that. But then the French teams have such big budgets it’s hard not to consider options like that. You only have a career of ten or so years, touch wood, with your body in good nick year-in, year-out.”
Laulala is still haunted by the near miss in last season’s 16-10 Heineken Cup semi-final defeat to Clermont, not least when his deftly weighted grubber in the 70th minute just eluded the covering Napolioni Nalaga, Felix Jones and then both the diving Lee Byrne and Laulala himself. For that to be a one-off shot at glory would almost be a waste.
Howlett has told Laulala that winning the Heineken Cup was as special as anything he achieved in an All Blacks jersey, so he’d rather like to experience the feeling himself. “Especially as the final is in Cardiff this year. That’s a long, long way away, but we got a taste of it last year down in Montpellier and definitely in the Stoop. What a feeling that was. That was as good as anything, including my first Test for the All Blacks.
“I can definitely see where Dougie is coming from, especially when you see pictures of the sea of red in those finals. But we’ll keep dreaming, and do what we can do to take us there.”