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Propping runs in the family for Leinster's new Samoan tighthead Alaalatoa

The 30-year-old has found similarities between the Crusaders and Leinster.

Alaalatoa joined from the Crusaders.
Alaalatoa joined from the Crusaders.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

MICHAEL ALAALATOA WAS only a few months old when his dad, Vili, helped Western Samoa to rock the 1991 Rugby World Cup by beating Wales and Argentina to reach the quarter-finals.

Vili isn’t one for boasting about his exploits on the pitch – which included a Test debut against Ireland at Lansdowne Road in 1988 – meaning it was others who told Michael and his younger brother, Allan, about that famous Samoan team as they grew up.

Samoa international Michael, who joined Leinster from the Crusaders in New Zealand during the summer, hopes Samoa can match those historic heights in 2023.

“Obviously the ’91 World Cup team is a team which is talked about all the time so we feel like we’re always trying to live up to that standard that they set back then, which was obviously pretty high, to beat some of the best teams at the time,” says Michael.

“It’s something that I’m very proud of, that my dad was part of that campaign and basically shocked the world. It’s cool.”

Vili was a tighthead prop and so too are 30-year-old Michael and 27-year-old Allan, who plays for the Wallabies. Naturally enough, their dad was an ideal mentor.

“From a young age, he used to take us to do our own training down at the park – that was right through school,” says Michael, who was named after the great Michael Jones, the back row who played for Western Samoa once before switching to the All Blacks.

“He [Vili] was coaching club rugby at the time as well so he still had the finger on the pulse in terms of what the game was doing at the time, so he was able to upskill us as well to a higher level than what we came from.” 

michael-alaalatoa-with-his-brother-allan-after-the-game Michael and Allan Alaalatoa. Source: Photosport/Clay Cross/INPHO

Both brothers were born in Sydney, where Vili played club rugby with Manly, and Michael came through the Aussie rugby system – as well as representing the Samoa U20s – to play once for the Waratahs. His progression stalled, however, and he opted for a move to New Zealand in 2015.

That’s where Scott Robertson, his future boss at the Crusaders, came into the picture.

“I didn’t have any [Super Rugby] contract and I was playing for Manawatu [in the NPC] at the time,” explains Alaalatoa. “I played against Canterbury and he was the coach and he actually put my name forward to the Crusaders.

“So then I spent a year at the Crusaders under Todd Blackadder and then I didn’t actually get coached by him [Robertson] until my second year at the Crusaders.”

Robertson, also known as ‘Razor,’ took over in 2017 and led the Crusaders to three consecutive Super Rugby finals, with Alaalatoa playing a prominent part in all three of those campaigns.

“He’s a different kind of coach, obviously, you can see that on TV but he loves winning,” says Alaalatoa of Robertson. “He’s very balanced, he’s good at making things fun but serious at the same time, so he’s got that going for him. 

“That’s why the Crusaders have been so successful. It’s all because you wake up on a Monday morning wanting to go to training. There are not many rugby environments where it’s like that, where you can’t wait to go to work.”

Happily, Alaalatoa has found something very similar in Leinster having decided the time was right to look for a new challenge. His family loved the “beautiful city” of Christchurch in New Zealand but the prop was keen to try something new in European rugby.

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michael-alaalatoa-is-tackled-by-fraser-armstrong The 30-year-old had great success with Crusaders. Source: Photosport/Marty Melville/INPHO

“The opportunity to come here was exciting,” says Alaalatoa. “When it came up, I didn’t think twice about it. It was a place where I felt I could grow as a player as well.

“I’m getting a bit older now but to get the chance to train with the likes of Tadhg Furlong, Andrew Porter and Cian Healy, the likes of those guys are world-class players and props. To train alongside them and see what makes them tick has been really good for my game.”

The Alaalatoas arrived two weeks before Michael had to start pre-season training and enjoyed getting to see some of Dublin, with the Leinster man saying that the variety of options for food has been a highlight of life in a city that is bigger than Christchurch.

Happily settled in, Alaalatoa has been able to make a good start to life with Leinster with two starts in their wins over the Bulls and Dragons. The Samoan international has found an environment similar to what he knew in New Zealand.

“The similarities would be probably that winning culture and that it comes from the players.

“You have got guys like Johnny Sexton who is very driven and has had a lot of success. You can see that in the way he approaches his training and his week-to-week performances as well. He is really professional and he is just one example of that.

“It’s something you see in the Crusaders as well. All I have to worry about is doing my job to the best of my ability because you know the guy next to you is going to do the same.

“From the time I’ve spent here at Leinster. it is very much the same. There’s a lot of trust in the group.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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