Fam­ily re­union for Laulala lads in French cap­i­tal

Nepo Laulala’s emer­gence af­ter a crip­pling knee in­jury leaves one for­mer All Black im­mensely proud, re­ports Marc Hinton in Paris.

Sunday News - - RUGBY -

At No 9 be­hind Aaron Smith and TJ Per­e­nara he does not have an ob­vi­ous backup. It’s why he brought Kerr-Bar­low on one fi­nal tour, even though he is de­part­ing at its end.

But this is New Zealand rugby. That hole will be plugged soon enough. Mitchell Drum­mond has had a week with the Baabaas, and now one with the All Blacks. Brad We­ber re­mains a con­tender. Same with Aug­gie Pulu and Bryn Hall. The na­tional coaches just need to see more from them.

‘‘We’re giv­ing other peo­ple an op­por­tu­nity to grow and get an un­der­stand­ing of what All Blacks rugby is about,’’ adds Hansen. ‘‘One of our big aims for the year was to ex­pose young guys to tour­ing, test match rugby and play­ing for the All Blacks. By the end of this sea­son we would have done that in bulk.’’

Have a look at the depth chart, and judge for your­self where Hansen’s All Blacks stand less than two years from the World Cup.

Sure, they’ve had a wob­ble or two, but sim­ply no-one – Eng­land in­cluded – can match them for depth. LET’S call Casey Laulala Paris chic. The for­mer All Blacks and Rac­ing 92 vet­eran mid­fielder is well en­trenched in his new home, con­vers­ing in French tre´s bien, em­brac­ing the so­cial op­tions of the Euro­pean cap­i­tal and about to open what he hopes will be a wel­come ad­di­tion to the city’s ex­ten­sive gas­tro­nomic scene.

But the Parisian cool of this still proud Kiwi dis­ap­pears in a flash when the con­ver­sa­tion turns to his younger brother, All Blacks tight­head prop Nepo Laulala, who makes his sev­enth straight start of 2017 for Steve Hansen’s team in this morn­ing’s test at the Stade de France.

The 26-year-old’s first ap­pear­ance for the All Blacks this year is men­tioned. He came in for a sur­prise start at tight­head prop against Aus­tralia in Dunedin, af­ter se­nior No 3 Owen Franks suc­cumbed to an Achilles is­sue.

Sud­denly the older Laulala (35) needs a mo­ment to gather him­self.

‘‘I’ve got goose­bumps again with you talk­ing about it,’’ he says of a pow­er­house per­for­mance from his brother. Part of that is pure pride, and part an in­ti­mate un­der­stand­ing of how hard Nepo had to work to come back from a crip­pling knee in­jury at the start of 2016.

‘‘He has spo­ken about his men­tal bat­tles, about miss­ing the whole year, but to come back and take his op­por­tu­nity so well, and have fun at the same time, my fam­ily and I are re­ally, re­ally proud of him. Now he’s in such a good place, and also men­tally stronger in terms of the con­sis­tent level he needs get to. Who would have thought we would meet again in Paris?’’

The Laulala broth­ers (young­ster Luteru, a ris­ing star for Coun­ties Manukau, is also here this week) have been spend­ing as much time to­gether as Hansen’s sched­ule per­mits this week. Nepo spoke be­fore the test about what a guid­ing in­flu­ence Casey, who played three tests for the All Blacks in 2004 and ’06, has been. ‘‘He is the main rea­son I chose this path­way,’’ said the 116kg qui­etly spo­ken tight­head. ‘‘He was an in­spi­ra­tion. He made us be­lieve it’s pos­si­ble to achieve it. I grew up in the is­lands [Samoa] and we’re very ca­sual there. Too ca­sual al­most. He made us be­lieve we’re ca­pa­ble of more.’’

Says Casey: ‘‘He’s mak­ing ev­ery op­por­tu­nity count. He did his knee on a walk-through – not in a game, or train­ing, or even a cap­tain’s run. Af­ter that he’s not think­ing about any­thing else apart from grab­bing the mo­ment and mak­ing the most of it.’’

Laulala is cer­tainly seiz­ing his mo­ments in Paris, af­ter ar­riv­ing at Rac­ing in 2014, fol­low­ing two years apiece in Cardiff and Mun­ster. He has loved all his stops, but ad­mits this one is spe­cial amongst a bevy of Ki­wis, in­clud­ing fel­low for­mer in­ter­na­tion­als Dan Carter, Joe Roko­coko and An­thony Tuitavake.

‘‘Our pres­i­dent [Jacky Loren­zetti] is a good man, he’s pas­sion­ate, and we’re well looked af­ter. We’ve also got some coaches who want to ex­pand the game to like how we play back in New Zea- land. So we’ve got a few play­ers here up­dat­ing the way we’re think­ing. Dan was the big sign­ing, bring­ing his ex­pe­ri­ence and knowl­edge of the game.’’

Laulala is well placed to of­fer an ob­ser­va­tion on the state of French rugby. Some­what of a new gen­er­a­tion ap­pears to be blow­ing through the na­tional team, with four debu­tants and five mem­bers of the back­line boast­ing five or fewer caps against the All Blacks.

‘‘It’s good to have a young team, and guys who are not scarred from big losses in the past. It’s up to them to have that dif­fer­ent think­ing go­ing in, know­ing they’ve got noth­ing to lose.

‘‘But it’s dif­fi­cult here. In New Zealand ev­ery­one plays the same style of rugby, so when you get to the All Blacks you don’t have to change any systems or habits. The French union has 14 dif­fer­ent teams, and ev­ery­one de­fends a dif­fer­ent way, and plays a dif­fer­ent style. When they get to the French team they all have to buy into a sys­tem they only have two weeks to work on.

‘‘But they’re re­ally try­ing to evolve their game here.’’

Raw-boned loose for­ward Vaea Fi­fita has turned heads in his rookie sea­son at in­ter­na­tional level.

Casey Laulala af­ter Can­ter­bury won the Air NZ Cup fi­nal in 2009.

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