Rugby: A rugby odyssey at just 21-years-old

By Campbell Burnes

So'otala Fa'aso'o in action for Grammar. Photosport
So'otala Fa'aso'o in action for Grammar. Photosport

So'otala Fa'aso'o has undertaken some rugby odyssey over the last few seasons to end up as the starting No 8 for Counties Manukau in tomorrow night's Mitre 10 Cup opener against North Harbour in Albany.

The 21-year-old was the 2012 NZ Schools skipper before appearing for Auckland in 2013, Samoa Under 20s and as a loan player - out of Auckland's Grammar TEC club - to Wairarapa-Bush for the 2015 Heartland Championship. There he scored three tries in nine seasons, making a solid impression.

But there were whispers that he carried a few extra, unwanted kilograms last season which may have hindered his mobility and desire to impress the right people.

The result was a fresh start for the 2016 season. He crossed the Harbour Bridge and played for the North Shore club, scoring eight tries and only being squeezed out of the North Harbour squad by Hapakuki Moala-Liava'a and Murphy Taramai.

The Steelers came calling.

"I guess you could say for someone of my age I've done a bit of a journey," says Fa'aso'o, a strapping, articulate lad and avid reader who is studying towards a Bachelor of Arts degree, double majoring in history and Pacific studies, at the University of Auckland.

"(My move) was around doing what was right for me and looking to rediscover why I started playing footy in the first place. I didn't want it to become a job, even though it has its financial benefits. I still want it to be about fun.

"I had a few friends from school (St Kentigern) such as Sione Mafileo over at North Shore. I was in that limbo zone. I wasn't sure what I was going to do and they just said 'Come and play here. There's a spot for you.'

"If North Harbour wasn't interested, then we (he and his agent) were hoping to make some noise and someone would be interested. There was a bit of luck involved too."

The upshot was that new Steelers coach Darryl Suasua was on the hunt for a No 8 after what appeared to be a long-term shoulder injury to Maama Vaipulu, one of the most consistent Steelers forwards of the last few seasons.

Fa'aso'o is a south Auckland boy at heart, with the family home in Papatoetoe, so he had no problems assimilating into the Counties Manukau rugby culture. He and Vaipulu have different skillsets, but Fa'aso'o can carry strongly.

One advantage he has over his new teammates is that he has played a lot under the new breakdown laws, which were implemented in North Harbour club rugby, though not in Counties Manukau.

"You'll probably find me not getting penalised as much. But nothing has really changed. You've still got to put the ball across the line to score points. It's going to come down to who adjusts the quickest to these new rules from an attacking and defensive perspective," Fa'aso'o says.

He is also tasked with organising some of the Steelers' defensive structure, and here he is soaking up plenty of fresh ideas from former England coach Stuart Lancaster.

Last Friday he had a priceless opportunity to mark the All Blacks captain Kieran Read, who was heading back to his roots in the Game of Three Halves.

"It was surreal, to an extent," says Fa'aso'o. "For every kid, the dream is to play for the All Blacks, but for me it was awesome to play against Reado. You see why he is the best in the world at what he does and Jerome (Kaino) is so uncompromising in what he does. You can feel their presence and take more learnings out of getting beat up."

As for tomorrow's night's clash against the province where he plays his club rugby, Fa'aso'o will not be running out with a chip on his shoulder.

"People might say the stars have aligned and I guess there might be a few eyes on me from North Harbour but I just have to play my game. If I come off the field and haven't had fun then I probably haven't had a good game."

Fa'aso'o will team up with No 6 Jordan Taufua and new No 7 Fotu Lokotui in what shapes as a very useful loose trio.

It will make for fascinating viewing.

- NZ Herald

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