Gold banks on for­mer mis­sion­ary and NFL star

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Rugby World Cup - By Char­lie Mor­gan in Kobe Im­pos­ing: Paul Lasike had a spell play­ing Amer­i­can foot­ball for the Chicago Bears

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.”

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