At 25, Roman Salanoa can hardly be called an overnight sensation. At the start of this season, his third with Munster and sixth in Irish rugby, Salanoa still hadn’t started a competitive game. But this is proving to be his breakthrough campaign.
A fortnight ago, Graham Rowntree made quite a statement of faith in Salanoa when starting him in his first Champions Cup game at home to Northampton, and although John Ryan’s scrummaging was understandably reinstated away to Toulouse, Salanoa remained an ever-present in the pool stages when sprung for the final quarter.
Injuries have been a factor, notably an ankle injury playing for Shannon in the AIL which did for the second half of last season. But his emergence this season is recognition of his innate strength, dynamic carrying and footwork.
After three appearances off the bench in the last of three seasons in Leinster’s academy programme, Salanoa has now accumulated more minutes with Munster this season (422) than in his previous two (170).
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“I had a very slow start coming over here from Dublin but I’ve been able to find my feet this season and use the change of coaching staff to start fresh, work on my body a bit more, and take advantage of the things I didn’t do in the last two years.”
Of Samoan descent, Salanoa was born in Oahu, the third largest of the Hawaiian Islands, and after helping Kahuku High & Intermediate School to win a state championship in American football in 2015, Salanoa earned an All-State selection as a defensive linesman, having previously been a running back.
He had begun playing rugby in his final year at school, also helping Kahuky to a state championship, after which he was called into the USA Under-20 team for the 2016 Junior World Cup. This led to a trial with Leinster and inclusion in their sub-academy in 2017, while cutting his teeth with Old Belvedere, before moving to Munster in 2020.
Salanoa says Hawaii is just like it looks on those idyllic holiday postcards.
“Yeah, it’s definitely like that. I grew up near enough to the beach, in the country and we probably had two stop lights in my town, for about 40 minutes you go one way or the other.
“It was very rural, very country. Tropical life, island life, good food, seafood. It definitely made it hard to transition from American Football to rugby!”
He no longer surfs – “not anymore” he says – and the pandemic restricted his travel home until the summer of 2021, and again last year, when sadly his mother passed away, but he still has plenty of family in Hawaii.
Initially moving from Hawaii to Dublin was a much bigger culture shock than the switch from Dublin to Munster.
“The most obvious one is the weather, definitely. But even the small stuff like cars driving on the other side of the road, the roads being so narrow, cars being so small. Even the architecture and stuff like that.
“It was definitely an experience in itself, just being in a different country. Luckily enough, through rugby, you’re kind of able to travel through most of Ireland and you get to experience life in Europe as well.”
The transition from Dublin to Munster was not without its teething problems either, namely the “accent change and the different slangs and lingos, especially with the Cork lads. When they’re all around each other, they’re different gravy”.
He admits to laughing when not always understanding the joke, and remains puzzled that every sentence ends with “kid” or “boy”.
Salanoa is enjoying Munster’s heightened emphasis on ball skills but, of course, its his development as a scrummager which will ultimately define his career.
“It’s a building process, layer upon layer. Early enough into my career in Leinster it was really just learning the foundations, the rules, the technical aspects of everything and why you do certain things and the outcomes of that.
“I’m playing a lot more now so you’re getting those opportunities to feel those things out and being able to problem solve even between the scrums and the matches,
“Every day is a new opportunity to perfect your craft,” he says, admitting “I wasn’t really picture-perfect” against Toulouse.
Having played in all three games on the Emerging Ireland tour, he is on Andy Farrell’s radar, and Salanoa has long since qualified through the five-year residency ruling.
“I’d love to play international rugby, to play at the highest level you can and definitely that’s in my hopes and dreams.”
More immediately, with John Ryan due to play his last game for Munster against Benetton tomorrow, as a late-developing 25-year-old with low mileage, this could be Salanoa’s time.