Michael Ala’alatoa relishing his new challenge with Leinster

Arrival of classy tight-head looks another shrewd bit of business by the province

Michael Ala'alatoa always had big shoes to fill, literally and figuratively.

His father Vili was a tight-head prop who played for what was then Western Samoa at the 1991 World Cup and was nicknamed Shoebox because of the size of his feet.

Ala'alatoa senior named his two sons after the great All Blacks flanker of Samoan heritage, Michael Jones, and – also being a big cricket fan – the Australian cricket captain Allan Border.

The younger Allan, now 27, has played over 50 times for the Wallabies while Michael, Leinster's astute new summer signing, has emulated his father in winning seven caps for Manu Samoa. He started all four games at the 2019 World Cup, including the final match against Ireland.


Born in Sydney, the older brother was barely a month old when his dad was a key part of the Samoan team which made their World Cup debut and shook the rugby world with a 16-13 win over Wales at Cardiff Arms Park. Three days later they extended Australia, the eventual champions, to a 9-3 win in a rain-sodden Pontypool before beating Argentina 35-12 to reach the quarter-finals.

But playing their fourth game in a fortnight with a mostly unchanged side took its toll against Scotland at Murrayfield.

That was a vintage Samoan team, featuring the experienced Frank Bunce and three young players by the names of Apollo Perelini, Brian Lima and Pat Lam.

Ala’alatoa senior started all four games and although the islanders also reached the 1995 quarter-finals, they have never done so since.

“I don’t hear much about it from him but I hear about it from everyone else now,” says Ala’alatoa.

“I play for Manu Samoa and obviously the ’91 World Cup team is a team which is talked about all the time so we feel like we’re always trying to live up to that standard they set back then, which was obviously pretty high, to beat some of the best teams at the time. It’s something that I’m very proud of, that my dad was part of that campaign and basically shocked the world. It’s cool.”

Like their dad, both boys are tight-heads.

“From a young age, he used to take us to do our own training down at the park. That was right through school. He was coaching club rugby at the time as well. So, he still had the finger on the pulse in terms of what the game was doing at the time. He was able to upskill us as well to a higher level than what we came from.”

Ala'alatoa came through the ranks in New South Wales to play once for the Waratahs before opting to move to Manawatu in 2015. In an NPC game against Canterbury, he so impressed their then coach Scott Robertson that the latter recommended him to Todd Blackadder at the Crusaders, before subsequently becoming his head coach for four years.

New challenge

He played 95 times in five years for the Crusaders, with three Super Rugby campaigns backed up by two Super Rugby Aotearoa crowns, so he brings an impressive CV and is still only 30.

"I had reached a point where I was ready to move on for a new challenge and you look at Leinster and they have been really successful the last few seasons. They've won the Pro14 the last few years and Europe in 2018 so the opportunity to come here was exciting. When it came up I didn't think twice about it. It was a place where I felt I could grow as a player as well."

Ask him what he likes most about the move so far and he admits, with a smile: “Probably the food. Coming from Christchurch, this is a bigger city so there’s a lot more food options, especially in those early weeks when we had a bit of time to try a few things. Now that the season has started I’m watching what I am eating more.”

He talks about working with, and learning from, the likes of Andrew Porter, Tadhg Furlong and Cian Healy, and the common denominator between the Crusaders and Leinster.

"The similarities would be probably that winning culture and it comes from the players. You have got guys like Johnny Sexton who is very driven and has had a lot of success. You can see that in the way he approaches his training and his week-to-week performances as well. He is really professional and he is just one example of that.

“It’s something you see in the Crusaders as well. I’ve said before I came here, that all I have to worry about is doing my job to the best of my ability because you know the guy next to you is going to do the same. From the time I’ve spent here at Leinster it is very much the same. There’s a lot of trust in the group.”

His scrummaging and handling skills have already caught the eye. He looks like another clever piece of business by Leinster, and perhaps even an insurance policy should the IRFU not do enough to keep the highly-valued Furlong.

After a debut against the Bulls in the Aviva and last week’s scratchy win in Rodney Parade, Ala’alatoa is in line to experience the RDS for the first time when Leinster host Zebre there tomorrow (kick-off 1pm).

“I’ve seen a few games on TV at the RDS. I’m not sure how many people can come to the game this weekend but I’m sure with them being close to the field it will be nice and loud, so looking forward to that. I’ve heard good things from the boys about playing there.”