LAULALA OUT TO PROVE ALL BLACKS WORTH AGAINST FRANCE
PARIS - New Zealand Prop Nepo Laulala will have something to prove when he lines up against France today after being told last year that he would never play rugby again.
The 26-year-old tighthead suffered a knee injury in 2016 that not only interrupted his 10-Test international career but almost brought the curtain down on his playing days.
Now the Samoan-born Chiefs front-rower is determined to show he's a better player than he was before his injury.
"It was really tough, I actually didn't really think I'd get back here," he admitted. "It didn't really help because my doctor told me he didn't think I'd play again. I had to get over that. It was a tough road back."
But the desire to silence the doubters was one of the main motivating factors. "It was a massive injury, I think it was one of worst he (the doctor) has ever seen -- that's not really a thing you want to hear from your doctor. "I wanted to prove that I could make it back; I wanted to prove that doctor wrong; I was really angry after that; after that I never saw him again!"
Laulala will be cheered on at the Stade de France by his All Black international brother Casey, 35, who now plays his club rugby in Paris for Racing 92 after spells at Cardiff Blues and Munster.
"It's always good to see Casey, we hardly see him back home. We've been catching up the past couple of days," said Laulala.
"He was always there for me, he always texts me, gives me little messages that keep me up. He's helped me through heaps, he's part of my main reason of choosing this pathway, trying to make it big. "He paved the way for my career, he's been a big part of my career, definitely. He made us believe it's possible to achieve it. "Growing up in the island (in Samoa), we're very casual there, we don't really do (much), almost too casual! "He just made us believe we're capable of more than what we think." New Zealand coach Steve Hansen believes Laulala will bring mobility and athleticism to his pack against the French, who the All Blacks beat, 24-19, a year ago in the same stadium. "He's another one who's got a bit of understanding about what's needed," said Hansen. "He's a reasonable athlete -- you can only use the word reasonable for props, you can't say they're great athletes in the sense of running around the park. "They're great athletes when it comes to scrummaging and lifting. He does that part of his game really well."
France coach Guy Noves caused a stir on Thursday when naming a new and young half-back pairing in 20-year-old scrum-half Antoine Dupont, who will make his first start after just three substitute appearances, and 21-year-old debutant flyhalf Anthony Belleau.
But he also raised a few eyebrows by bringing heavyweight centre Mathieu Bastareaud back into the starting XV for his first cap since the World Cup, when he was part of the team humiliated 62-13 by New Zealand in the quarter-finals.
"The choices have been made based on the potential at our disposition," said Noves, whose side have won only three of eight Tests this year. "When you have, I think, 18 players injured, you take into account the form and the physical preparation -- we didn't have any other options than these."