The Japan centre is famed for slick passing but exploits in the ring have spurred him on
Offload king Tim Lafaele on his wrestling inspiration
Like oh-so many Samoan kids, Tim Lafaele was a fan of wrestler Dwayne Johnson growing up. He could smell what The Rock was cooking.
Yet the story of his early life was one punctuated by transition and rugby. Lafaele was sent to Auckland at just four to be adopted by his uncle, while his father remained in Samoa, hoping young Timothy would prosper abroad. Having missed out on the Auckland rugby academy, in his last year at De La Salle College, Lafaele would get the opportunity to move to Japan, for a four-year scholarship at Yamanashigakuin University.
Today, he is settled. It has been 11 years since Lafaele, 28, left for Japan and in 2019 his offloading antics for the Brave Blossoms on an incredible 2019 Rugby World Cup sent tongues wagging. And all the way there it was rugby propelling him, the pursuit of a professional contract the initial motivator.
He would move to Fukuoka to join the Coca-Cola Red Sparks out of university and then later the Kobe Kobelco Steelers, as well as featuring for the Sunwolves and of course the Japan national team.
“I’d never heard of it at the time,” Lafaele says of Japanese rugby scholarships and his early experiences. “But when I got there, there were so many other guys doing it.
“I didn’t know much about Japan – all I knew was the big city, the big lights. But when I went there it was a totally different part of Japan, out in the country! It was a bit of a shock at the start as I didn’t know how to speak Japanese.
“The training was a lot different to New Zealand too. It was long. We’d have three or four hour-long training sessions in the afternoon. We’d do training in the morning before you go to class and after that the three or four-hour training.”
Pushed by his family to go out and see the world for himself, he relished the rugby opportunity. However, we all crave something familiar and it is here where the life of a wrestler really captured him.
Toks ‘Bad Luck’ Fale is a founding member of the Bullet Club stable of performers, in New Japan Pro-Wrestling. He is also a De La Salle alumnus who took up a Japanese university scholarship and went on to play professional rugby in the country, at the Fukuoka Sanix Blues (now Munukata), before injury curtailed his career and he turned to a life of grappling. Fale has served as something of an inspiration to Lafaele.
The centre says of his friend: “In my last year of high school we went to a tournament in Japan. He (Fale) stayed in the area, in Fukuoka, and I met him there. We kept in contact. Then when I went over to Japan for university I contacted him.
“He basically helped me, talked to me when I needed help or extra motivation. He’d tell me to keep writing my goals down and to aim for them.
“When I first went over to Japan in 2010, that’s when he was a ‘young lion’ – that’s what they call them when they start going into the dojo – and he’d just started up then. He made his debut that year. Starting out he was at the bottom but it only took him like a couple years until he was at the top with the Bullet club. Seeing him do that, man it just motivated me to try to do the same with my rugby.
“Seeing the struggles he went through to get to where he is now motivates most of the guys from my school when they see his story.”
Shortly after the World Cup, the 6ft 5in and 130kg-plus Fale invited Lafaele and team-mate Hendrik Tui to sit ringside for an event at Wrestle Kingdom. Then closer to time, Fale asked the pair if they would like to walk the competitors out to the ring.
The two rugby stars were jacked at the offer, but when they got backstage it dawned on them that they did not know the proper etiquette for such a role. Panicking, they laughed and asked each other at the curtain, “How are we going to do this?!”
On the field of play, though, Lafaele is a willing showman.
Asked to recall his favourite offload, he quickly responds that his flick against Russia in the World Cup opener was a moment to treasure. For those who had followed Japan in the build-up, playing with such freedom as they would go on to do against European powers like Ireland and Scotland should not have been a surprise.
Related: Inside the vital 24 hours before Japan v Scotland
“The coaches, Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown, encourage boys to play with their own style,” he explains. “It’s good feet, they encourage the boys to have a crack all the time. And it’s in games, not just at training. Having the confidence from the coaches means heaps when you go out to express yourself.
“Tony Brown, when he takes our backs and we’re doing passing drills, we’ll be doing normal passes and he’ll chuck in, ‘Nah, boys, this time all the passes have to be around the back – keep practising that.’ So everyone’s trying it and most guys have one good arm and one bad arm…!”
Lafaele says he was surprised when Joseph and Brown first called him up to the Japan set-up, but he has been nurtured and encouraged since. He made his debut in 2016 and has started 22 of his 23 Tests. And while Fale has helped him set goals, he has had plenty of on-field mentors too. Tim Bateman and Andy Ellis have helped him out, while seeing Dan Carter at close quarters was also beneficial.
Then there is the coach work of Wayne Smith at the Steelers, who Lafaele praises for his communication skills, his rapport with the athletes. Asked why Smith is so coveted, so influential, the back adds: “You’ve got all these other coaches trying to make up moves and stuff but if you run, use hands, you’ve just got to be square. It’s running good lines. It’s keeping stuff simple so the boys can understand easily and execute easily.”
During lockdown, though, clubs have been good at letting Japanese Test players focus on programmes remotely, to align with national plans. Lafaele has been back in Auckland, helping out his family there, but he has his eyes set on a bright future for the Brave Blossoms. Key to that, for him, is Japan getting to compete with the best of Europe in November.
“I’m pretty excited and keen to get involved if that tournament does go ahead,” Lafaele says of unconfirmed stories about Japan’s involvement in an eight-team tournament in Europe in November. “I want to carry on that momentum from last year but also our boys are working hard at the moment as well.”
He believes that after the highs of the World Cup and the buzz around Japanese rugby – it was an interesting experience to be recognised on the way into Wrestle Kingdom, for example – it is time to capitalise. He also wants to improve on his game, being smarter and more ruthless at the contact area while maintaining his ability to slip a pass. Think of the savvy Conrad Smith, he says.
It’s time to show off a bit more of his ring craft.
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