- Former All Black centre Casey Laulala, who featured in two Tests for New Zealand, shares his views on South Africa's Rugby Championship absence.
- The Super Rugby-winning Crusader, who featured from 2004 to 2009, reveals his toughest South African opponents individually and collectively.
- He also responds to David Campese's inciteful remarks about the All Blacks "losing their aura of invincibility" and previews Bledisloe two in Auckland.
Sport24 asked: Your take on South Africa’s Rugby Championship withdrawal?
Casey Laulala: What’s done is done but it’s sad to see that South Africa won’t be playing Australia, New Zealand and Argentina because that is what people live for. South Africa are set to lose their number one ranking as they are unlikely to play Test rugby again until the British and Irish Lions series in 2021. South Africa has already walked away from Super Rugby in favour of an expanded PRO16 series and it all makes sense because when you play in Europe there is no lag in time. It’s logical to make that move but from a traditional point of view, it’s something that hurts a bit because my rugby career was all about flying to South Africa and Australia and then back home. However, nowadays you have to make a business decision and do what is best for the union. If you keep losing that much money every year then it’s not a good business plan. The decision not to compete this campaign wasn’t taken lightly but I believe South Africa will be part of the Rugby Championship in time. However, for now their absence really hurts because it was a tribal clash whenever we faced the Springboks and something we looked forward to from childhood. The decision has been made and who knows it may turn out to be the best thing for South African rugby. I know for a fact the introduction of more South African teams will be good for northern hemisphere rugby because they’ll bring something that is going to benefit the competition.
Sport24 asked: How would you sum up your two-test All Black career?
Casey Laulala: Debuting for the All Blacks was a very proud moment for me and my family. I was brought up in Samoa and moved to New Zealand. I never thought it (playing for the All Blacks) would happen because to go that far and to actually make it was unexpected. I wish I had played more times for the All Blacks as every New Zealander does. At the time when I was there I was putting in good performances year-in and year-out but Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith really cemented the centre spots. It was why I took the decision to move away. It’s quite cool that my brother is now playing for the All Blacks. Nepo is just a beast of a man and has developed in terms of his ball-playing ability and how he reads the game. As a prop, your primary job is the set-piece and if you do that well then you are halfway there.
Sport24 asked: Who were your toughest South African opponents?
Casey Laulala: The Bulls were definitely my toughest opponent during my time in Super Rugby with the Crusaders. We were competing with them in the 2000s and it was especially tough playing them in Pretoria at altitude. Back then we looked forward to the challenge because they brought something really different. They had the physical forwards and the hard-running backs. Our tactic was always to take out the lead Bull – the ball-carrier – early to try and kill their momentum. Once they gained that momentum, it was so hard to turn the tide as they used all their physical attributes to try dominate the opposition. What we know is that the South African mindset of playing has always been direct. They have also always had great No.10s who can kick the ball. From an individual perspective, Jean de Villiers was one of my toughest South African opponents. We had some good battles and he had such an attitude of never giving in for himself and the team. He just kept coming and kept coming. Coupled with his mentality, his skill level and strength were major attributes.
Sport24 asked: Who was your preferred centre partner and why?
Casey Laulala: The Super Rugby championships I won with the Crusaders were with Tim Bateman as my centre partner. However, if I had to pick a standout centre partner it would have to be Aaron Mauger. I played my two Test matches for the All Blacks alongside him. When I played with Aaron, I basically only had to worry about using my footwork to get the team going forward. I never really had to worry about organising things and just had to get myself into a position to use my attributes to try move the team forward. Aaron played flyhalf as well over his career so he had the vision of a No.10 and always put me into space. He knew when to release the pass which is something I developed later on in my own game.
Sport24 asked: Who do you rate as today’s premier centres?
Casey Laulala: Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am were absolutely amazing at the World Cup. Damian is really class. They have been playing with a lot of freedom. The bring something different with their forward vision and there was a little bit of swag about them as well which is what I love. The main thing is that in the World Cup they were unstoppable. Some of the plays they played down the short side were impressive and they were putting those little passes together. The changing of pace on the outside made a big difference and as a result the Springboks scored a lot of tries. You can see how important the changing of the mindset was and what you feed to players as a culture is critical. Credit to the coaches for changing the game plan but the players were also able to adapt and express themselves. The Springboks were able to change their mindset for different games. For the All Blacks, the combination of Jack Goodhue and Anton Leinert-Brown is great. Leinert-Brown is strong on defence and his attacking ability is stellar, while Goodhue is as great as anything. I would pick them as my All Black centre pairing but in the future, if Reiko Ioane gets more time in the 13 jersey and improves his defence, there is no doubt that he would be my number one.
Sport24 asked: Your choice for World Rugby Player of the Decade?
Casey Laulala: Riche McCaw would get my vote but it would be between him and Dan Carter. Richie was quiet and led by action. He didn’t say much and when he did he was straight to the point. He was just something else and had the mindset of getting on with it and would always say, “next job, next job.” He turned up in every single game and to do what he did for that long with the quality of performance was impressive. His career was second to none and the award should either go to him or Dan in my book. I was blessed to play with two players of their generation but with Richie having served as captain and having achieved that many things in his career, it would give him the edge. He was someone you just wanted to play for and we had a very special group of players back then. For us, winning was everything and we had a culture that was pushing us to perform every week.
Sport24 asked: How did you find the transition into coaching?
Casey Laulala: The coaching came about because I injured myself in my last year of playing. As a player, I used to do some skills training with the boys and then when I retired I came on board and did the coaching full-time. I spent a year coaching at Toulon and had a great time taking the attack. For two, three months we didn’t lose a game but then a new coach came in and we had a fallout, which is one of those things. He was heading in a different direction to the style I was trying to implement. We decided to part ways… I would definitely like to give back to the game in a coaching capacity but for the moment everything is unstable in terms of work. My goal at the moment is to develop my business but from time to time I do some skills work with the Stade Francais boys. It keeps me in the game and I love doing that because there are no politics and it’s just pure rugby. It’s about giving back to what has given me so much. My family is in New Zealand, so in time I will have to make a decision to either go back or for them to join me in France. But I definitely want to stay in the game and give back because I do really love it. But, as you know, it’s not always that straightforward.
Sport24 asked: Your outlook ahead of Bledisloe II at Eden Park?
Casey Laulala: After last week’s 16-16 draw in Wellington, it will be a great match this weekend. I saw that David Campese said that he believes “the All Blacks are losing their aura of invincibility.” He is a legend of the sport so he can say whatever he wants to. Comments like that are good for the game but as a team you don’t have to take the bait and bite down on the rod every time. I believe the All Blacks will never lose their aura and it’s something that lives within them. It’s about mindset and everything that they do. We have seen it many times that the All Blacks don’t play well in the first Test but they are renowned for their adaptability. New Zealand being New Zealand, once they sniff out an opportunity they will take it. After the first test, they won’t make the same mistakes and will adapt and make changes. If the weather is good, we will see some attacking rugby but the All Blacks will also look for territory. Very few people know that the team that kicks the most are the All Blacks. Many rugby supporters have the perception that the men in black are the most attacking team in the game because every time they attack it’s with conviction and they usually score. Hopefully All Blacks coach Ian Foster, who took over from Steve Hansen, will bring something different to the table because the All Blacks are all about innovation and finding ways to get better. It’s why the All Blacks have always been ahead of the game. Most teams now employ the same style of rugby, so it is all about execution and managing your players.