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Saturday 27 February 2021

The Hawaiian prop, the Sunday Game producer and Irish rugby’s tug of war

Eddie O’Sullivan and Wesley Liddy haven’t just discovered a potential star but also a talent factory better known for its production line of NFL players.

Roman Salanoa playing for Leinster in a pre-season friendly.
Roman Salanoa playing for Leinster in a pre-season friendly.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

IT SOUNDED LIKE the kind of gag a tuxedoed comedian would have tried in a smoke-filled working man’s club. What do you get when you come across a prop from Hawaii, a producer from The Sunday Game, a Munster legend and a Triple Crown winning Ireland coach? Except this isn’t a joke with a cheesy punchline. Instead this is the story of one of Irish rugby’s brightest prospects, a player who had only ever played 12 games of rugby before he moved here from Hawaii in 2017 and who this spring had three of Ireland’s four provincial coaches fluttering their eyelashes in his direction.

It was Leinster who put him through their academy; Connacht who were next to take a look before Munster eventually won the chase to sign him on pro terms. Tomorrow is his first day of pre-season in Limerick. Matt Gallagher – son of John, the 1987 World Cup winning All Black, is the rugby blue blood he shares a house with in Castleconnell.

You may have come across Roman Salanoa’s name before. But it’s unlikely you’ve heard his story, the upbringing in Laie, a working class Hawaiian town with just 6,138 inhabitants that over the years has sent 17 of its residents to the NFL. If that is kind of startling then so too is the fact that in 2006, USA Football announced that Kahuku High – Salanoa’s alma mater - was tied with four other high schools for the honour of being the school with the most players on NFL rosters. “Football is a big tradition where I’m from,” said Chris Naeole, a Kahuku ex-pat who went on to play for the Jacksonville Jaguars. “I’ve been gone awhile from Kahuku, but I go back there and they just keep pumping out kids. Everyone there is strong-minded. There are a lot of Polynesians in the league from all over Hawaii.”

paddy-mcallister-hakes-hands-with-roman-salanoa-after-the-game Salanoa shakes Paddy McAllister's hand. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

But there are many more who just end up on the sporting scrapheap, the end of High School marking the end of their sporting career.

And this is where the dots start to get joined.

Wesley Liddy isn’t a name many of you will have heard of but the chances are that at some stage in your life, you may have watched a programme called The Sunday Game.

Well, Wesley is the show’s producer. He’s also a rugby nut, brought up in Greenfields, a hop over the wall from Young Munster. Rugby’s in the blood and so is America. He has siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles all living there so his childhood summers were defined by trips across the Atlantic long before The Sunday Game’s soundtrack echoed in his ear.

While US sports consumed him, the bit he couldn’t get his head around was how almost everyone’s career hit a full stop once High School finished. The lucky elite would get college scholarships; the smaller and even luckier elite would go from there into professional sport. For everyone else, there was little or nothing, no equivalent of the Junior B championship on a Sunday morning to pass the time.

Now let’s fast forward to 2015. The Young Munster man is using his spare time to study for a Sports Management Masters in UCD when he comes across the statistics from that year’s Rugby World Cup, where a quarter of the participants were Polynesian. “You didn’t need to be a genius to see what way the wind was blowing,” Liddy says.

If you wanted, you could oversimplify rugby into blunt terms. Teams who win collisions often end up winning trophies and to win collisions, it helps to have big men. 

So this is where we start to connect things. This is how a kid who first arrived in Ireland four years ago with just 12 games of rugby on his CV ends up being argued over by three of Ireland’s four provinces in the lockdown spring of 2020. By rights it shouldn’t make any sense but then again Tadhg Kennelly’s transition from a promising Gaelic footballer into an Australian Rules Premiership winner was equally illogical.

“I was always kind of fascinated by the idea of guys moving from one sport to another,” Liddy says, “and between the jigs and the reels, in the course of my research I fell into conversation with Eddie O’Sullivan (the former coach of Ireland and the US Eagles) about this, and we discussed the psychological attributes that would be required for a player to learn a new sport from scratch. That’s kind of where this project started.”

What happens next is unplanned. On the day Ireland defeated the All Blacks in Chicago, O’Sullivan is in the commentary booth in Soldier Field when he decides to call an old pal of his from his days coaching in the US. Seamus Fitzgerald, a New Zealander whose father left Waterford for the north island, had ended up in Hawaii. Rugby was still his thing, Kahuku High School, the team he coached.

As O’Sullivan waits for the Haka to start before that 2016 game in Soldier Field, Fitzgerald gets talking about Kahuku’s state championship win and how this kid, Roman Salanoa, had transitioned from an (American football) All-State defensive linesman into a tight-head prop. “The first rugby game he ever played,” Fitzgerald says, “was like watching a man among children. I’ll never forget his first touch. He powered forward like a juggernaut, literally pushing five their players about a metre or so out of the way. It was like that try that Jonah Lomu got when he ran over Tony Underwood at the ’95 World Cup.”

Eight games later, Salanoa was an All-American High School rugby player and selected for the USA’s Under 20 side which ended up finishing fifth at that year’s World Junior Trophy. The funny thing about all this is that O’Sullivan had actually called Fitzgerald to ask about someone else. “No Eddie,” Fitzgerald said, “the guy you should look at it is this kid, Roman.”

eddie-osullivan Former Ireland coach, Eddie O'Sullivan. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

As well as winning state in football and rugby, Salanoa was a Hawaiian underage power-lifting champion. “He could bench press 400 pounds as a 17-year-old,” says Fitzgerald. Yet he was also the possessor of explosive pace and superb footwork. “Look, if any kid could take to a new sport from scratch, it’s Roman. Not just because (American) football is about power, quick steps and having the vision to spot gaps but also because of the culture he grew up in where touch rugby is the sport that kids play on the village green.

“Like the Kahuku High School (American football side) play touch in their pre-game warm-ups. Plus, with Roman, it’s a personality thing. He may be physically suited to rugby but there’s much more to him than that. He has a work ethic, a discipline growing up of saying ‘yes sir, no sir’. I knew he’d be physically capable of going into a rugby academy because of his size (he was 6”0 and just over 17 stone as a 17-year-old) but I also knew he’d have the mentality. He’s extremely coachable.”

This is Jesse Sapolu, a native Samoan who won four Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers: “The thing about Polynesian kids kids is they grow up in a household where there’s a chiefly protocol. There’s a huge emphasis on humility, on respect for elders, family and community.”

Still, within the rugby world, a kid with just 12 games on his CV isn’t easily marketable, no matter how humble or talented he is. O’Sullivan and Liddy are good salesmen, though and it is at this point in 2016 that Alan Quinlan – the former Ireland and Munster flanker – plays a cameo role in the Roman Salanoa story, serving as the human bridge between O’Sullivan/Liddy and the IRFU. David Nucifora listens. A 10-day trial is arranged at Leinster. Salanoa thrives in it. Nine months later, after visas get sorted, he’s on his way into the Leinster sub-academy.

Still, to the wider world he remains one of rugby’s biggest secrets along with the dozens of kids who pass through academies every year, each tagged with next-big-thing labels. Yet there’s something different about this fella. “Athletically, he’s freakishly talented,” says O’Sullivan, who brought Salanoa into Old Belvedere, where he was coaching at the time. “Like I mean his acceleration is incredible. There’s serious strength and yet he’s light on his feet. From what I was told, his gym scores – two years ago – were the same as Cian Healy’s and Tadhg Furlong’s.

paul-stridgeon-with-tadhg-furlong-and-leigh-halfpenny Salanoa and Tadhg Furlong set high gym scores at Leinster. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“But the thing that has really impressed me about him is his honesty. Seamus made the point he was teachable.”

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What Fitzgerald actually said was this.

“As a kid he was everything you’d look for as a coach; the best player on the State championship winning side; the 16-year-old who’d pop down the road to cut his auntie’s lawn. He’s just a special kid.”

It wouldn’t take long for Leinster to figure this out. A year ago he was promoted to train with their first-team squad. Stuart Lancaster took a shine to him. Last Christmas, he made his debut, the first of three senior caps he’d win for the province.

And all this while – four years and counting – trips home to Hawaii are infrequent. Old Belvedere helps with accommodation; Liddy helps him adjust to a new city. “Wesley and his family have been unbelievably kind,” O’Sullivan says, “taking Roman on family holidays, making sure he’s alright.”

Still there were the inevitable teething troubles. “I was after jumping into a new sport and that wasn’t easy,” Salanoa said in an interview with The Independent earlier this year. “It would be like throwing a rugby player straight into American football.

“You start questioning everything. You have to do your homework, do a lot of one-on-one sessions.”

Leinster A used him in the Celtic Cup. “That was a lot faster,” he said. “You get exposed for a lot more flaws. For every error, there is a consequence. But I am learning all the time because I just don’t want people to think of me as an American football player playing rugby. I just want to be a rugby player.”

What Andy Friend wanted, in January this year, was for him to become a Connacht player, Johann van Graan for Salanoa to wear a Munster shirt. Leinster, meanwhile, didn’t want him to leave Dublin.

“Roman loved it at Leinster,” Liddy says. “It was a brilliant environment for him and he learned a lot. But when it came to making the decision, we had a look at what the options were. The tight-heads in front of him at Leinster, Tadhg Furlong and Andrew Porter, are 27 and 24. The guys in Connacht (Finlay Bealham and Dominic Robertson-McCoy) are 28 and 26 whereas John Ryan and Stephen Archer are both in their 30s.

“I don’t think he’ll necessarily play more in the next two years at Munster than he would have at Leinster but it’s the two years after that when you hope he’ll get his opportunity. Graham (Rowntree) was a big factor in it too; Munster’s setting kind of similar to the rural part of the world he grew up in. It is the right fit.”

O’Sullivan thinks so too. Remembering the role John Hayes played in his three Triple Crown winning teams, O’Sullivan has proof that the leap can be made from novice to international. “I’d be confident about Roman’s chances,” he says, “not just because of his athletic traits but also because of how resilient a person he is. Like, he has come this distance and hasn’t flinched no matter what has been thrown at him – a new sport, a new environment. The thing is that High School American football players are used to studying playbooks from an early age. They’re tactically astute. Plus gym sessions are part of the school curriculum. Sure, it’s a big step but if you’ve someone who has world class footballing skills as well as world class listening skills, you’ve a chance. And this kid has something – he is special.”

Back in Hawaii, Fitzgerald – by mere coincidence – spent Friday afternoon in the company of Salanoa’s father just before your correspondent called. “He’s a red once again,” Salanoa senior said to Fitzgerald, a reference to Munster’s jersey colour and the Kahuku High School team’s nickname, the Red Raiders.

Here’s another story, picked up by Sports Illustrated a few years ago. In 2011, Fitzgerald – a drama teacher at the local university as well as the school’s rugby coach, fulfilled a request to write the words to a Maori haka for the Red Raiders football team. The story behind the Kaipahua Kura—Maori for “We are the Red Raiders”— is a poignant one. “For our families and community, who have been through much,” it starts.

That’s barely scratching the surface of things. Ten years ago, the school was struck by tragedy when one of the team’s co-captains took his own life. A short time later, a broken-hearted friend of the deceased, also passed. At the end of their haka, the Raiders players point to the sky, gesturing at the players and the people from their community who have gone before.

Source: MoStreetProductions/YouTube

In 2015, before that year’s state championship final, Roman Salanoa, Munster’s new hope, was told, along with his Kahuku team mates, that they would be penalised 15 yards if they performed the haka before the game. They did it anyway (see above), suffered the penalty and won their game.

“When people think about community spirit, about the closeness of families, they really should be thinking of a place like this,” Fitzgerald says. “Their Polynesian culture is so important to them and rugby is a part of that. It isn’t an alien sport. They grew up playing touch rugby for fun, (American) football for championships.”

Salanoa is the first to cross boundaries, sporting as well as geographic, yet Liddy and O’Sullivan intend going back. Another Kahuku graduate was about to sign for the Dragons until Bernard Jackman lost his job there; while the pandemic has stalled Jeremy’s Davidson’s Brive from their pursuit of a third Hawaiian. O’Sullivan, Liddy and Fitzgerald are convinced there’s a mine of talent waiting to be unearthed.

“You’re looking at a similar amount of potential here as you get in Fiji, Tonga and Samoa,” Fitzgerald says. “Their genetics suit rugby.”

Will Munster suit Salanoa? Perhaps the answer lies in the words of Sports Illustrated’s Austin Murphy who wrote of the hardship people endure on Hawaii’s North Shore. Despite its distance from the mainland, the American Dream—the chance to improve one’s lot by earning a college scholarship—remains vital and alive here. It could be a by-product of strong faith or the jaw-dropping natural beauty all around, but the vibe one gets from the Red Raiders and their coaches and parents is upbeat, buoyant, optimistic. And, when necessary, aggressive. Among the vows cried out by the players during their haka: “We will stand up and fight with courage!”

Now where have we heard those words before? 

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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