Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Time to believe in Steven

It is ridiculous to write off Blues player Steven Luatua after his up-and-down season, writes Gregor Paul.
Achieving set-piece dominance is one  of Steven Luatua's three goals with the Blues this season. Photo / Getty Images
Achieving set-piece dominance is one of Steven Luatua's three goals with the Blues this season. Photo / Getty Images

Steven Luatua could easily become the forgotten man at the Blues but it's not something about which he needs reminding.

He gets it. He's contemplated the possibility of becoming an obscure item at a franchise he loves and is not keen on it.

It was only three years ago when he was the big noise, the most exciting emerging loose forward in the country. Now it's Akira Ioane this and Jerome Kaino that and, oh yeah, that's right, Luatua is still at the Blues, too.

It's ridiculous. Luatua is still only 24 and, yet, because his star fell further and faster than it rose, there will be plenty willing to write him off as someone who had his chance and didn't take it.

Ridiculous because he's got an age to bounce back and because he plays in a position that can't be mastered quickly.

Kaino is the best example of that. Like Luatua, he was full of early promise but didn't deliver until he was almost 28. And it's ridiculous because the past two years are more likely to have been the making and not the breaking of Luatua.

He held the Blues together in 2013 just about on his own and was a must-pick for All Blacks coach Steve Hansen. The following year, he turned up not quite fit enough and his All Blacks career spluttered before coming to a temporary halt when he wasn't taken to Europe. And last year just didn't happen for him - a major shoulder injury wiped him out of action.

"I don't think we ever want to go through that adversity but I guess I see the benefits of it now," Luatua says. "There are a lot of pros and cons. A select few work hard and come back from it and, hopefully, I can be the select few - work hard and come back and show what I am about in the years to come.

"Having spent that time off being a broken arse ... I really missed playing rugby. The enthusiasm to be back playing and coming into the season is at the forefront of my mind."

Hunger will be everything in Luatua's quest to climb back up the mountain. It was missing a little in 2014 and was partly responsible for his career slide beginning.

Luatua got home from Europe in December 2013 and spent too long celebrating the All Blacks' perfect season. His lack of fitness was like a thick algae in that it sat mostly undetected under the surface in Super Rugby before the All Blacks found it, clogging Luatua's engine.

"Why did it happen to me ... good question," he says about his loss of fitness that year. "I thought I was fit but, compared with the other loosies, I wasn't.

"That's one of the good and bad things about sharing so much information between the franchises. We keep each other accountable. I felt I was fit and then I came to [All Blacks] training and, nope, bad luck, I'm pulled and then I'm having to play catch-up.

"I have learned not to get myself so out of shape as I did then. You can live a little but not as much as I did. You want to come back into training in the maintenance phase, not playing catch-up, which is where I got to."

The problem with Luatua not being fit enough was that he could not have the impact he needed. He was always chasing the game and a No 6 can't do that.

A blindside can only intimidate if he's in the right place to knock people over.

He can't be relentlessly physical if he's arriving at the contact area after the ball has moved on. Luatua isn't likely to repeat those mistakes.

He didn't enjoy being flogged by the fitness trainers or having his failings exposed to a wider audience. Having been swamped in both praise and criticism, he knows which he prefers.

The big thing players talk about these days is keeping things simple - of not allowing the focus to be too broad - so Luatua will start the Super Rugby season with three key objectives.

"Top-quality set-piece - both scrums and lineouts," he says. "Dominance in the collisions and work ethic, getting down and back up off the ground. It is something that is a lot easier now I'm fitter.

"I don't need to think about running like that so much. I used to have to say to myself to get into the chase line, but now I am in the chase line and I have to think about what I do that I'm there and what the next thing I have to do is."

If he can tick those boxes, he'll have the All Blacks interested again. But he'll need to do all that just to keep winning game-time at the Blues.

Selection pressure will be intense trying to accommodate Kaino, Ioane and Luatua. Kaino has in previous years shifted to No 8 for the greater good of the team, but this year is likely to be used in his preferred blindside role.

Luatua isn't viewing that as an obstacle and nor is he fretting about the intensity of the competition.

"I prefer to play six but we have the best six in the world in the team," he says. "I can't move him so I will learn to up-skill at No 8 and I can also play lock.

"When I first started, we had Chris Lowrey in the mix as well and he was great for us and Jerome. I was always coming behind them and trying to catch them up.

"It was a similar thing in the All Blacks when I first got in there. There was Liam [Messam], Victor [Vito] and Reado [Kieran Read] and a lot of competition. But I enjoy the challenge. It's one of the things that comes with the job. You see these guys and you have to want to be better and if you don't, then you're in the wrong career."

He wants to be better because he doesn't want to be forgotten.

- NZ Herald

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