From Forklifts To Deadlifts: Tolu Latu Becomes A Waratah
by Brendan Bradford –
Judging by the try he scored in the Shute Shield Grand Final last weekend, you’d expect 20-year old hooker Tolu Latu to be starting on the wing, not vying for the Waratahs number two jersey with Tatafu Polota-Nau. But that’s exactly what he’ll be doing after Tahs coach Michael Cheika today named him in the squad for 2014. It’s a call-up that will also see him leave his job at Flemington markets where he works the nightshift driving forklifts.
One of seven new arrivals, Latu joins Kurtley Beale and Nick Phipps from the Rebels, Jono Lance from the Reds, Jacques Potgeiter from the Bulls, Matt Carraro from Montpellier and Tala Gray from Biarritz. Cheika named 29 of a total 30 senior squad members, with one more front-row spot still up for grabs. Five Extended Playing Squad places also need to be filled after the opening today of the EPS contracting window.
After gathering the ball on the 22-metre line in the second half of the Grand Final at Concord Oval last weekend, Latu risked ejection from the front rower’s union by ignoring a hooker’s natural instinct to steam-roll the last defender. Instead, he feinted outside, ducked inside and powered through the Eastwood defence to score in the corner and seal the Shute Shield for the Students.
“To be honest I don’t know what I was thinking when I did that step. It was probably the biggest fluke, but it was good,” the former Australian Under-20’s representative said today.
A standout in a quality Uni forward pack all season, Latu starts work at midnight and finishes at 11am before heading off to training. He jokes his bulk is from spending his money on McDonald’s, but it comes as no surprise that the Tongan-born powerhouse is a reformed back.
“I started in the backs and slowly lost my speed and put on weight and didn’t grow taller,” he laughed.
“I started in the centres and moved to No. 8 and played loose forward for a while then got told ‘mate you’re too unfit and too slow to be in the loose forwards so you should try your hand in the front row’, which was pretty surprising to me.”
Three years later, it’s a surprise that will see him challenging 28-year old Polota-Nau for a starting spot in the Waratahs’ pack. Polota-Nau missed a fair chunk of the 2013 season through injury, meaning Latu will more than likely make a couple of appearances in the Cambridge blue as Cheika plans for the future.
”I’d say Taf’s got his hands full,” said Cheika.
“He’s going to have a competitor right from day one. Tolu has shown he can be a very dominant player and the idea of bringing him in is that Taf does have his hands full. Somewhere along the line we’ll bring in another hooker and Tolu will have his hands full too.”
Latu trained with the Waratahs throughout the season as a club player, but really impressed on the NSW Barbarians tour to Argentina in July. Still, he never thought his brush with professional rugby against a rugged Argentina side would earn him a fulltime contract.
“To be honest I didn’t really think about that because I was just there to play the game and represent my province and do as well as I can,” said the Canterbury junior.
Latu will be joined up front by Eastern Suburbs and former Biarritz back-rower Tala Gray who along with Jacques Potgeiter will add a bit of starch to the Waratahs pack.
“Rugged in attack and defence, Tala is a strong ball carrier and a big worker. He also has a bit of edge which I really like in players and he is hungry to prove himself back in Australia,” said Cheika.
With a high turnover of players – especially in the backs – the inclusion of Beale and Phipps is a significant boost, leaving Chieka with selection headaches of a good kind as he tries to figure out how to best utilise his star players.
“Kurtley is a great reader of the game and has the exact profile that we are looking to inject into our current backline set up,” Cheika explained.
“He’s an extremely talented player and is just coming into his prime playing years. I can’t wait to see him back in the sky blue.”
Currently in a rebuilding phase after the lows of 2012, Cheika has set himself the dual task of winning the Super Rugby trophy and reconnecting with the fan-base. Considering the squad announced today, it’s an achievable assignment.
“The reality is we’ve never won it and for our supporters, for our organisation and for our province, we have to target going out there to become a top two team because if we can finish top two we’re a chance of winning it and that’s gotta be our Holy Grail,” he said.
“(It’s about) belief in our identity and becoming more connected to our heartland and supporters because then you’ve got responsibilities. Every time you run out on the field you’re playing for them – you’re playing for all the people who have come to support you, the clubs and all the people wanting to see New South Wales do well. That’s what we need, a bit of responsibility.”
NSW Waratahs 2014 squad –
Mitchell Chapman (Eastern Suburbs, 30), Dave Dennis (Sydney University, 27), Kane Douglas (Southern Districts, 24), Tala Gray (Eastern Suburbs, 23)*, Jed Holloway (Southern Districts, 20), Michael Hooper (Manly, 21), Sekope Kepu (Randwick, 27), Pat McCutcheon (Sydney University, 26), Tolu Latu (Sydney University, 20)*, Wycliff Palu (Manly, 31), Tatafu Polota-Nau (Parramatta, 28), Jacques Potgieter (27)*, Benn Robinson (Eastwood, 29), Paddy Ryan (Sydney University, 25), Will Skelton (Sydney University, 21), Jeremy Tilse (Sydney University, 27).
Adam Ashley-Cooper (Northern Suburbs, 29), Matt Carraro (29)*, Kurtley Beale (24)*, Peter Betham (Sydney University, 24), Cam Crawford (Northern Suburbs, 24), Bernard Foley (Sydney University, 24), Israel Folau (Sydney University, 24), Michael Hodge (Sydney University, 24), Rob Horne (Southern Districts, 24), Jono Lance (23)*, Brendan McKibbin (Eastern Suburbs, 28), Nick Phipps (Sydney University, 24), Ben Volavola (Southern Districts, 22).
* Denotes new player