Magpies v Steelers
McLean Park, Napier
If you ask Ray Lee Lo, he'll be the first to reveal his dramatic rise in rugbydom even caught him on the hop.
It only seems like yesterday he was slipping on a Counties-Manukau jersey as injury cover for Tasesa Lavea.
Almost four years on the Samoan-born was last month acknowledging plaudits from Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder after signing a two-year contract to help the Super
Rugby franchise from Canterbury in their campaign from next season.
"I was actually quite surprised the Crusaders were interested,'' says Lee Lo after arriving at a Napier hotel on Thursday from South Auckland.
"No one knew me before that so I'm pretty happy.''
Keeping his head out of the clouds is imperative for Lee Lo.
"When I play now I just treat every game as if it's my last game because you never what's around the corner in sports these days with injuries and things like that.''
It'll be, of course, equally surprising if the 27-year-old exciting midfielder doesn't start in the Ranfurly Shield challenge match against holders Hawke's Bay Magpies' as the hosts prepare for their first defence at McLean Park, Napier, from 4.35pm today after taking the log off Otago Razorbacks last Sunday in Dunedin.
No doubt, Lee Lo will be hoping that element of surprise will see the Steelers catch their coach ride back along State Highway 1 with the Log o' Wood in their mitts.
Should their dreams materialise it'll be a historic occasion for Counties-Manukau who have never lifted the most-coveted rugby trophy in New Zealand provincial rugby in the
union's 58-year existence.
The Steelers, despite boasting hybrid players such as former All Blacks Jonah Lomu and Joeli Vidiri as well as halfback Danny Lee (now the Magpies assistant coach), have had 24 unsuccessful attempts to etch their name on the shield and, consequently, possess the worst shield record among the unions in the ITM Cup competition.
In fact, add to that list Counties-Manukau coach Tana Umaga, a former All Black captain who has had no cigar with either the Wellington Lions or the Steelers as a player.
Ironically, Lee Lo made his debut for Counties-Manukau in 2009 in a match against
the Magpies at McLean Park although the visitors were on the receiving end of a less memorable 54-8 flogging.
"It's good for me because every time I play Hawke's Bay I'll always remember my first
game,'' says the centre who was relaxing and working when he got a call from Counties-Manukau that year.
It'll be Lee Lo's third shield challenge match today. The first one was against Southland but ``I didn't get on because the big fellah [Umaga] was playing''.
In the following year, he got on the paddock because Umaga had assumed the mantle of coach.
"I can't wait for the game [today],'' he says, lauding Umaga's coaching philosophy.
"He changed my rugby career and the career of the other boys' too.''
Although their campaign in the high-tier Premiership grade hasn't been ideal, Lee Lo says they should have won the 22-20 loss to Auckland on Wednesday night at Eden Park.
The Steelers know winning a few more games will change their fortunes in a blink of an eye.
So what will it take to lift the shield today?
"We have to start well. I know the boys will be a little sore after last night [Wednesday] but to create history we have to play for 80 minutes and man up.''
He reckons pivotal to the Steelers' forward impact will be the experience of former ABs and unwanted (85-match) Magpies hooker Hika Elliot, who will be playing for the first time in front of his home crowd in opposition colours.
"He brings a lot of experience with (hooker) Mahonri Schwalger out for the rest of the year with injury,'' he says of Elliot, a Maori All Black who played for Tamatea premier club of Hastings.
Lee Lo, who has 13 caps for the Hurricanes, was in the Chiefs' development squad in 2011.
The 1.81m tall, 96kg back, who attended Otahuhu College in Auckland, is excited by the prospect of learning and playing alongside hybrid players in the Crusaders squad.
Born in Vailima, a village 4km south of the capital city of Apia, Lee Lo is the son of Liuala, a mother who works as a part-time cleaner at nights in Auckland, and Lautala, a father who is a mechanic.
The middle child among seven, Rey Lee Lo returned to Samoa with his parents as a 5-year-old and a 7-year-old before settling in Auckland at the age of 13 when his parents returned.
"Life was quite tough in the islands although my grandparents there looked after us,'' he says, revealing he wasn't comfortable about living with an aunt in Auckland when his parents briefly returned to Samoa.
As a young man who was still trying to establish a foothold in the upper echelons of rugby, Lee Lo worked as a landscaper with Counties-Manukau teammate Augustine
"Augie'' Pulu as well as installing insulation in Auckland homes.
A father of two young girls, who will move down to Christchurch with him in Super Rugby season, Lee Lo is enjoying the Steelers' culture.
"I'm playing with a lot of guys I grew up with so I'm having a lot of fun with the island boys.''
Never mind where he plies his trade, deep down Lee Lo knows he'll always return to the Steelers' stable in what he believes to be a life-long affinity with the collective.