Monday 18 December 2017

Leo the lion is ready to go

WHAT was initially a mere travel opportunity has now opened up a whole new career path.

If Leo Auva'a stopped to think, he might well afford himself a smile at the different road which has brought him to Leinster.

The 27-year-old had been around the Leinster rugby circuit for several seasons - helping Old Belvedere to their inaugural AIL success last season - prior to being offered a professional deal with Leinster. Though he wants to improve and offer a lot more, he would have proudly reflected on the positive start which he has made with the province.

His four league tries in 12 games is an impressive return for a number eight, with the power of his drives with ball in hand causing havoc. As all of the various nuances knit together and improve with each passing game, Auva'a is relishing the demands of the professional game.

Like his colleague Aaron Dundon, whose close-season signing from an AIL career which started in Seapoint and flourished in Clontarf, it was proof if any was needed that impressive form can be rewarded.

The journey which has taken him 18,500km from his hometown of Wellington to Dublin began with a simple phone call.

"A good mate of mine, Jacob Ellison - a back-row forward who I had grown up with through the Age Grades - accepted an offer to join Clontarf. I think the plan was to move him to prop because there were a lot of back-rowers in Wellington then.

"He stayed for a year and loved his time here under Phil Werahiko, who then moved to Old Belvedere and was on the lookout for a back-rower. Jacob mentioned my name to Phil and the rest, as they say, is history. My initial plan before moving to Ireland was to play a bit of social rugby and see the world.

"If it wasn't for Old Belvedere then chances are I would never have gotten a chance to play for a great team like Leinster. So each day I feel blessed and I'm so thankful with the way things have gone. Hopefully there'll be more good days to come."

Auva'a draws similarities with the club structures from his native New Zealand and in Ireland. "If you do well with a club in Wellington you can get selected for the Wellington Lions. Then you can maybe break through into the NPC side or the Super XV panel if things work out.

"It's similar in Ireland where good form in the AIL can lead to opportunities with the Leinster 'A' team and then the Senior team. It's like anything, in any sport. Every time you pull on the shirt you want to do it justice so the motivation is the same."

Though the province enjoyed a fine run of results in the three months prior to the recent hiatus in the season, Auva'a is acutely aware of the need to switch on again and push on if involvement in all three competitions is to be maintained. "Life has taught me that if you believe in yourself, then anything can happen", he reflected ahead of next Thursday night's visit of Benetton Treviso to the RDS.


"But you have to work bloody hard too and that's the attitude that we're going to have to take coming into the next few games. It can be a hard time when you're without so many players who are away with Ireland, but we showed for the most part when those same guys were unavailable at the start of the season (during the Rugby World Cup) that there is a good bit of depth in the squad.

"As Joe (Schmidt) drills home to us, we cannot let our standards slip regardless of who is or isn't available because we're representing Leinster. Joe has great faith in us and a number of the players who have been asked to step up have taken their chances and are being rewarded."

Leo has also played an impressive part in Leinster 'A' team's drive to the semi-finals of the British & Irish Cup -- having been a part of the squad for the guts of the last three years -- and is relishing the visit of Munster in April. But there are hard yards to be made before April comes around.

Like the rest of the country, Auva'a will be a keen spectator as the Six Nations kicks off. "It's a great competition," he says, "and you always want the Ireland team to do well.

"Hopefully the Leinster boys go well and do the business but it will be tough because all of the countries seem to be improving. If the Heineken Cup form across Europe is anything to go by, we should have some confidence.

"By the end of the season I will have been here for four years and I love life here in Ireland. My parents and my family are very proud of the way my career has gone with Leinster and hopefully I can keep on improving.

"The people are so friendly and it's a very similar to home, except the weather! There's a great mood in the Leinster camp too which feels like a family atmosphere so hopefully it'll be onwards and upwards for us."

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