Rugby Union: Leota proving a big hit at Wasps

Samoan rugby is synonymous with heavy tackles, but one hooker is adding a new definition to the art
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IT IS ALMOST three decades since Joggie Jansen, a Springboks centre the size of the Orange Free State from which he hailed, single-handedly demolished the All Blacks with the force of his aggressive tackling. The intervening years have seen coaches push back the boundaries of rugby's big-hit vocabulary; they now talk of the offensive tackle, the destructive tackle, the vindictive tackle and, most recently, the Leotive tackle, which appears to be an explosive combination of the others with a splash of first-degree homicide thrown in for good measure.

The Leotive tackle, an all-over body assault designed to immobilise the target for a fortnight rather than the remaining balance of an 80-minute match, is the exclusive preserve of its inventor. Trevor Leota, a 23-year- old hooker who splits his opponents in two as neatly as he splits his rugby between Wasps and Western Samoa, has been specialising in human demolition since he first picked up a rugby ball at the age of four and has gradually refined a calling card every bit as distinctive as was Joe Frazier's left hook.

"I always tackled like this, even as a kid back home in Auckland," he says, conjuring a disturbing vision of small piles of broken New Zealand youth dotted around the parks and playgrounds of the North Island. "It's a way of life where I come from; the big tackles are both expected and accepted. Not like here in Britain, where some referees object to my style and whistle me for every little thing. I wouldn't mind so much if they gave me an explanation because, as far as I'm concerned, it's all perfectly legal."

Leota happily subscribes to the "hit first, flowers later" philosophy so fundamental to the game in the South Sea islands. No islander himself - born in Auckland and adopted by his Samoan grandparents along with six brothers and seven sisters, he grew up in precisely the kind of tough neighbourhood that gave Jonah Lomu to the sporting world - he nevertheless rejected a possible All Black career to keep faith with his lineage.

He visited Britain with Pat Lam's tourists in 1996 - "See what I mean about the referees here? I was sent off in Munster and missed the Ireland Test in Dublin" - and was recommended to Wasps by Va'aiga Tuigamala, the former All Black wing and rugby league great who also happens to be a second cousin. "I told Inga I was happy to join the club provided he was going to stay there and play alongside me," Leota recalls. "He agreed, I signed up and the next thing I knew he was on his way to Newcastle.

"London was a new scene for me, a whole new life, and it took me a while to settle down. Like a lot of Samoans, I can be a lazy trainer - put us in a match situation and we'll give it our heart and soul, but we sometimes find the fitness stuff a bit of a passion killer - and I realise now that I wasn't quite disciplined enough last season. That's all changed, though. I've been told what's expected of me and the hard work is paying off."

And how. Along with Keith Wood, Harlequins' hyper-active Irish Lion, Leota can consider himself the most effective hooker in the Premiership; indeed, his performance against Saracens at Vicarage Road last weekend was as definitive as one of those tackles of his. "The thing about Trev," says Will Green, the Wasps tight-head prop now pushing for an England recall, "is that his technical work has improved out of all recognition. He's scrummaging hard and hitting his jumpers at the line-out. As for the rest of his game, well, that's always been something else."

Indeed. Few front-rowers are blessed with Leota's comprehensive range of ball skills and his low centre of gravity, he has the body shape of a dinosaur's egg, makes him devilishly difficult to bring down. "Leota? Don't talk to me about him," mutters Danny Grewcock, the Saracens and England lock who found himself on the wrong end of some vintage Samoan physical stuff last weekend. "He's a bloody nightmare, frankly. You can't tackle him, but he sure as hell knows how to tackle you. If you've any sense at all, you just keep out of his way."

In common with so many of his countrymen, Leota is as soft-spoken and self-deprecating in the clubhouse as he is a handful on the pitch. There is no conflict in this, no hint of a dual personality at work; quite the opposite, in fact, for Leota's confrontational style of rugby is a natural and joyful expression of his love of the physical rather than a breast- beating display of macho posturing. Which is why he almost burns with righteous anger when he is accused of playing fast and loose with the laws.

"It's not just the tackle thing," he insists. "The refereeing of the ruck is an equal source of frustration. Premiership rugby is growing in speed and intensity all the time but it will never reach Super 12 pitch while people are allowed to kill the ball. Try to ruck them off it and you get pulled up. Referees here are forever saying: `That's not rucking, you're nowhere near the ball.' It doesn't matter that the ball is right by the guy's head and you're actually doing him a favour. You just get penalised.

"To me, rugby is all about the physical, the gladiatorial. My youngest brother, Junior, has a league career with the Penrith Panthers in Australia and, having played a lot of social league myself and loved the one-on- one combat, I find myself very attracted to the game. But union is still everything to me right now, both with club and country. There's a World Cup next year and there isn't a Samoan in the squad who doesn't think we can get to the last four. That would be quite something for the country, don't you think?"

At Loftus Road tomorrow, he squares up to Wood, his rival force of front- row nature, in a Wasps-Quins derby of enormous significance. It will be, quite literally, a head-to-head contest: Wood, as bald as a coot, against Leota, who plans to unveil his new crop in all its startling, black-streaked peroxide glory. "A good cut," he says. "Vidal Sassoon, you know. Only the best is good enough."

If both hookers play to form this weekend, they will reduce their fellow professionals to nothing more than a 28-strong supporting cast. "Looking back," says Leota quietly, "I can't think of a single occasion when I've come off second best in a tackle." Wood will no doubt attempt to force- feed those few words back to their originator. Just for once, you would not give Ireland's finest much for his chances.