Why COVID has been a 'blessing in disguise' for Wallabies
SPOTLIGHT: Lukhan Salakaia-Loto feels the upside of coronavirus is the fast-tracking of the Wallabies’ new culture under coach Dave Rennie.
And he is counting on that bond translating to the field in Wellington for Sunday’s opening Bledisloe Cup Test against the All Blacks.
Kiwi Rennie, who replaced Michael Cheika, has invested heavily in creating tight connections, with Wallabies players learning more about the traditions and values of their teammates.
Born in New Zealand and of Samoan heritage, Salakaia-Loto is one of more than a dozen players in the squad with Pacific Island ties.
Preparing in a quarantine bubble in Christchurch, the players are together almost 24-7 and have been seen online singing and playing games.
Salakaia-Loto said Rennie had worked hard to bring the players closer.
The Wallabies’ bond was tested last year when Rugby Australia sacked outspoken Israel Folau following controversial social media posts, with players split in their support of the fullback and his strong Christian beliefs.
“COVID has been a blessing in disguise for us to really gel,” the Queensland loose forward said.
“We’re such a multicultural group and maybe in the past we haven’t really understood one another as well as we should have, so he’s [Rennie] worked hard in getting this group to bond and understand each other and make it a level playing field where everyone can speak up.
“The tighter you are off the park the harder you’re going to work for each other and the effort we put in for each other on the field is going to be much stronger.
“Off the field is such an important part of results and gelling as a team.
“You still have to go out and perform but it’s good to be so close – good signs for us.”
With new coaches – Ian Foster was handed the New Zealand helm in December – and coming off COVID-affected domestic competitions, there’s a sense of mystery about Sunday’s battle.
Both sides are expected to blood new players, but Salakaia-Loto said his team could not expect anything less than the best from New Zealand, who have an 18-year stranglehold on the trans-Tasman trophy.
The 24-year-old says he has been training at lock and in the back row and is unsure how he will be used against the All Blacks.
“Whether you’ve played 100 Tests or no Tests, if you get selected you’ve proven yourself worthy enough to throw your respective country’s jersey on.
“You’re there for a reason and people have backed you.
“We are preparing for a strong All Blacks outfit and that doesn’t change if you’re playing for the first time.”