Gold banks on former missionary and NFL star
If England were shocked by the tackle from Tonga flanker Zane Kapeli that rocked Billy Vunipola to the turf in Sapporo, they should know that they have more midfield muscle heading their way.
Gary Gold’s United States side have spent some of their build-up in Okinawa, an island to the southwest of Japan that houses two US military bases. Paul Lasike is certainly one of their big guns.
The Takapuna-born former NFL player starts at inside centre for the US today in Kobe. He is imposing and explosive enough to have earned 10 appearances for the Chicago Bears as a full-back in 2016. Yet that stint only accounts for one section of his remarkable story.
A decade ago, in his native New Zealand, Lasike attended a national junior training camp with peers such as All Black Julian Savea, before moving to Salt Lake City on a rugby scholarship in his late teens. He subsequently attended Brigham Young University in Utah, but took two years out to work as a Mormon missionary in Alabama.
On returning to Utah and BYU, Lasike excelled in American football. Arizona Cardinals picked him up and Chicago Bears later gave him a home. However, he was cut in 2017 and paid the bills with a job in construction. Then, strong performances for Utah Warriors in Major League Rugby caught the attention of Gold.
The 29-year-old has five tries in 16 Tests since making his debut against Chile in February 2018. His weight is listed as 250lb (17st 12lb) on the Eagles’ official website. That makes him heftier than Manu Tuilagi. As Lasike explained yesterday in Kobe, he likes “to play physical” on both sides of the ball.
Added intrigue comes from the fact that Paul Gustard, England’s former defensive guru, has been overseeing Lasike’s development for the past season at Harlequins.
“He’s a defensive genius,” Lasike said of Gustard. “In terms of structure and line speed, I’ve really learnt from his style of defence. I’ve tried to bring some of that to the US team as well.”
England and the US meet in the wake of public criticism directed at the tournament’s referees from World Rugby, which implied that officials have not been dealing out severe enough sanctions on shoulder-charges and high tackles.
Lasike has learnt from his own injury issues in a helmet-free sport. “I’ve had a couple of concussions,” he said. “But I do like playing physical and [tackling] is one of the parts of the game I love.”