AGE: 26 HEIGHT: 1.84M // WEIGHT: 125KG CAPS: 7 // POSITION: PROP DEBUT: 2015 There was a bit of a false dawn for Nepo Laulala. He made it into the All Blacks squad in 2015, but never quite nailed his opportunity.
He’d impressed for a couple of years with the Crusaders, winning increasing amounts of game time alongside Owen Franks and the All Blacks liked his work in the core area of scrummaging.
Everyone was hopeful that having taken the decision to head to the Chiefs in 2016, Laulala would push on and force his way back into contention. But disaster struck before the season began.
“I was preparing for the Super season in January last year,” says Laulala. “It was close to the season starting and we were having a clarity walk through with the team and some of the boys weren’t abiding by what the coaches were saying which was to stick to 50 per cent intensity.
“They were hissing in and I went over the ball and wasn’t even braced. I got the shock of my life. I was gone for the whole year. I snapped three ligaments and tore my quad muscle o the bone. It was pretty bad.”
He required surgery and missed the remainder of the year. It was a bad injury: certainly a hard one for a man his size from which to recover.
Then there was the position he plays – which is all about explosive power and weight bearing in scrums and contact areas. Would his knee be able to be rebuilt to hold up to those sorts of demands?
It took him a while to rebuild his confidence when he returned to action earlier this year. But slowly the signs started to look good for him – that he was returning to his best form.
He wasn’t originally picked by the All Blacks but was called in when Owen Franks’ Achilles finally gave way ahead of the test against the Wallabies in Dunedin.
“I was in better shape when I returned to Super Rugby this year,” he says. “But because our job up front is quite heavy it took a while to get my confidence back after such an horrific injury.
“It was hard to stop worrying about my leg. It was about getting my game fitness up. I am feeling pretty good now. It is a matter of not taking things for granted.
“I had a lot of time to think about things last year and I have grown up a lot and I am not afraid of failure. I keep learning and moving on and being grateful for every opportunity I get.”
He’s shown that attitude by playing superbly for the All Blacks since Dunedin. His scrummaging has been excellent. Rock steady and almost as good as Franks’.
He’s also shown considerable ability to defend – to move well around the field and make a significant number of tackles. The one area of his game that he’s been asked to work on harder is his attack.
“I have been focusing a lot on defence since I came back [from injury]. I lost my touch a bit with the other side which is attack. I am trying to improve my ball carry and catch-pass.”
The important thing from the All Blacks’ perspective is that they have a ready-made replacement for Franks.
NEW MAN Nepo Laulala has an improved attitude since he damaged his knee.