Alapati Leiua slides over to seal a late try bonus-point against Doncaster at Castle Park (JMP UK)
By Will Carpenter
Alapati Leiua has left a trail of destruction in his wake this season, but the Samoan powerhouse insists there is plenty more to come, after battling back from successive knee injuries that left him considering his future in the sport.
After recovering from an ACL injury in his left knee, the 29-year-old suffered an identical injury to his right not long into his return. But the move to Bristol in the summer of 2017 has gifted Leiua a new lease of life, and the versatile back says he is enjoying his time in the West Country.
“Bristol is a really, really nice city,” he said. “Me and my missus have settled in really well and enjoy ourselves here. The boys have helped by making me feel welcome, and I already knew Siale (Piutau), Tusi (Pisi), Jack (Lam), Chris (Vui) and a few others, so it was quite easy to join the team.
“It definitely makes everything easier, we’ve played together for Samoa, so it’s been easy to settle in with them here at Bristol.”
Having missed more than a year in total, Leiua admits the frustration of his injuries almost saw him call time on a flourishing playing career. But having battled through and come out the other side, the 18-cap international is just thankful to be back in action. His experiences have also put him in poll position to offer advice to young teammate, Mat Protheroe, who has also recently fallen afoul of an ACL injury.
“The last three years at Wasps were tough,” he said. “I did both ACLs and it was testing, but I got a lot of support behind the scenes, from my family, friends and teammates, they helped me through and allowed me to stay positive.
“I was out for so long, but it’s been good to get some game time here at Bristol. I’m really enjoying my rugby at the moment, enjoying life and that’s the best thing, to enjoy what you love.
“I actually had a chat with Proth (Mat Protheroe) just this morning in the physio room. It’s the hardest thing for a sportsman, to be out for a long time, so it’s important to get your mind in the right place.
“You need to get your mind strong first and everything will fall into place. I think, when I was out – especially with my second ACL injury – it was tough, and I almost felt like quitting, but like I said, there were people around me giving me support.
“That’s what Proth needs right now, the boys helping him through this time, keeping his mind-set right and I think he’ll be fine.”
“After my second ACL injury, it was tough and I almost felt like quitting. But there were people around me giving me support. That’s what Mat Protheroe needs right now, the boys helping him through this time.”
Leiua’s form has been one of many highlights for Pat Lam’s side this season, but the former Hurricanes star believes he’s still building back towards his best form. It’s a terrifying prospect for any defence – a 6ft, 102kg Samoan in full flight and on top of his game – and Leiua says enjoyment is the key factor for his on-field displays.
“I wouldn’t say I’m there yet, but it’s starting to build. I’ve already spoken to the coaches about how much I’m enjoying my rugby here.
“For the first time since moving to the UK, I’m really happy where I am and I’m really happy with my rugby. That’s what I need for me to move forward and I feel good.”
Leiua was presented with his Samoa cap following his country’s defeat to England at Twickenham during the Autumn internationals, where a special guest had flown in to see the game and the presentation that followed.
“My mum flew over from Samoa and I really enjoyed seeing her – it was a special moment,” he said.
“I was looking forward to it for a long time before she got here, but especially at Twickenham, with my mum there, it was massive for me.
“I always enjoy playing for Samoa and representing my country, so to have my mum there as well was special. Hopefully I will have more opportunities to play for that jersey in the future.”
Leiua was born in Malie, (Western) Samoa, but was adopted by an uncle in New Zealand, where he soon stormed on to the rugby scene.
A series of barnstorming displays for the Hurricanes in Super Rugby quickly caught the attention of the All Blacks, but as a proud Samoan – and with his brother, Ofisa Treviranus already capped by the country of his birth – there was only one nation Leiua wanted to represent.
“I was approached by the All Blacks, but I’m a proud Samoan, I was born there.
“Obviously, I was adopted and lived in New Zealand, but I’m a really proud Samoan and I’m happy to represent my country.”
Leiua has featured both in the centre and on the wing so far this season – scoring four times in the GKIPA Championship to help Bristol to 13 wins from 13 in the league – and although accepting his side are on the right track, Leiua recognises the need for improvement as Bristol head into a season-defining block.
“There’s always something to improve. But the vision of the club, how hard the boys are working to improve every day; we’ve still got a lot of work to do, but we’re on the right track.
“These next couple of games are huge and we need to put in some big performances. We need to get our mind set right and know our roles. Our focus is on getting to the Premiership, so we’re working hard towards that.
“I’ve also got to say thanks to the fans, they’re always there, every weekend. They are why we play the game we love, and they are a big part of our team. I just hope we can make them proud this season.”