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.
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.