Rugby League: Get ready for Terminator II

Tetley's Bitter Cup final: Cousins turn the season's climax into a Samoan family outing
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The Independent Online
ONE OF the first things you notice about Trevor Leota is not so much the hair, although that's a head-turner, but his neck. In Spain, a matador would view it as a challenge; in France a guillotine would meet an immovable object, and in Jermyn Street the tailors would have fainted. Leota's collar size is 25 inches and they don't make shirts that big in England.

He looks like a cross between Jonah Lomu and the weight-lifter Precious Mackenzie. He is only 5ft 9in, but he weighs in at 18st. There is no getting away from it, Leota is not of conventional build. To cap it all, his black hair has yellow streaks which, by chance, "fitted in perfectly with the Wasps colours" when he joined the London club three seasons ago. This is the only thing remotely Wasp-like about him.

Nigel Melville, the Wasps director of rugby, first noticed Leota playing for Western Samoa against Richmond when the South Sea islanders toured here in 1996. The great Va'aiga Tuigamala - then with Wasps, now with Newcastle - is a first cousin to Leota and acted as the go-between.

"I'll never forget the day I picked him up at the airport," Melville said. "There was this extraordinary figure with a yellow cap and a little bag. He was big and short at the same time and fat as well. I thought 'What the hell have we got here?'" Melville drove him straight to Swansea, where Wasps had a European Cup tie, and Leota did not make a big impression with his new team-mates. He could not stay awake.

He originally signed a two-year contract and is about to sign for another two years. Trevor Lalolagi Asotasi Leota (apparently it means "the world one day") has been a phenomenon, one of the most successful signings by any club in the Premiership. And next Saturday at Twickenham he will be a key player in the Tetley's Bitter Cup final against Newcastle and Tuigamala.

To the Wasps supporters Leota is even more popular than Lawrence Dallaglio, the England captain. At Loftus Road he has created a bigger buzz than Rodney Marsh and Stan Bowles. He has become a folk hero, complete with the necessary nicknames. His wife Ruth calls him Rhinoskin; within the Wasps squad he can be the Cappuccino Kid, on account of the light bits in the hairdo, or the Terminator, on account of his devastating tackling, which has become one of his trademarks.

It runs in the family. "My father's nickname was Kamikaze because of the way he played rugby league," says Leota. His father Vai, who was born in Apia, the capital of the Polynesian archipelago, moved to Auckland to work in the docks. When he was 10, Trevor, who was born in New Zealand, was adopted, along with six brothers and seven sisters, by his Samoan grandparents. Imagine a sevens team all called Leota.

"When I was a kid a couple of my older brothers used to take me into the back yard and my job was to run at them. I have always liked physical contact. We seem to be pretty thick-boned." At Kelston School in Auckland his headmaster was Graham Henry, now the principal of the Principality.

"He did a lot for me," Leota said. "I only went to school to play rugby. He took me under his arm." Leota worked in a factory from 7am to noon and then attended school. He played for the same New Zealand boys' team as Lomu and Jeff Wilson and was eligible for the All Blacks. "My family wanted me to play for my home country. We're Samoan." Since he was 19 he has been part of the national squad of Western Samoa.

Wasps have been preparing not just for the cup final but for a place in next season's European Cup, which is of far more long-term strategic importance. At Sudbury in north London, their quaint old ground in the middle of a housing estate, which remains their training base, Leota arrives looking like an extra from South Pacific. He is wearing flip-flops, shorts and a T-shirt that could cover the little wooden stand. "He's a legend," Kenny Logan shouts across the car park.

There is no place in the Super 12 for the South Sea islanders, and British clubs have benefited from the arrival of a shoal of Samoans. To their traditional exports of copra and timber can be added professional hitmen, alias rugby players. There is the odd star in the threequarter line, Tuigamala, Stephen Bachop (London Irish) or John Schuster (Harlequins), but they seem to specialise in dynamic, world-class back-row players such as Pat Lam (Northampton), Junior Paramore (was Bedford, now heading for Gloucester) and Isaac Feaunati (London Irish).

Leota is different. Most Samoans, not to mention Tongans, seem to tackle with uninhibited force, but he offers much more. As a hooker, perhaps only Ireland's Keith Wood comes close to Leota's all-round skills. Not only is he hard to stop (his centre of gravity is lower than an aardvark's) but he does things with the ball normally associated with a stand-off.

At Wasps he has gone from strength to strength, improving his fitness, technique and power. Before coming to England he had never trained with weights. In last season's final, when Wasps (four finals, four defeats) were upstaged by Saracens, Leota was famous for 15 minutes, the time played as a replacement. After the Cup final next weekend he flies to Japan with Western Samoa for the Pacific Rim tournament and will play eight Tests in the build-up to the World Cup.

Having just turned 24, Leota, who has known his wife, Ruth, since he was 13, got married last year and has settled in Harrow with their children Sharelle and Isaiah. "When I came here I'd never heard of Wasps. The first three months were difficult, but there's a family atmosphere and we've been made really welcome.

"The standard of rugby has improved a lot, has really quickened up. When we get into Europe it will be on a par with the Super Twelve." Ruth is French and Leota is in the process of getting a French passport. The club is ready with another sobriquet: Le Ota.

It is not surprising he has been adopted by the crowd. After every game the Terminator has what he describes as a few Cokes with the supporters. In fact, he drinks pints of the stuff laced with rum.

For the final, the Cappuccino Kid will get the froth on his head highlighted. He used to do it himself, but now his celebrity is such that he gets VIP treatment at Vidal Sassoon's.

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