Observer on Saturday - - Sport -

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."

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