'I didn't want to play anymore': D'Angelo Leuila's rise from the ashes
After taking over as the starting No 10 partway through the season, Leuila made every play a winner for Waikato and earned himself many a supporter thanks to his confrontational style of play at first receiver.
The title-winning campaign was a dream come true for the young 24-year-old but what made it all the more special was that prior to the season kicking off, Leuila had almost given up on rugby altogether.
Rugby had always been a major talking point in Leuila’s South Auckland home during his formative years, with his grandfather his biggest supporter throughout his youth. When his grandfather passed away in 2015, Leuila’s interest in the sport started to wane and the loss of his grandmother in 2020 was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
A move to Hamilton beckoned for Leuila and fiancée Maia to start afresh, and rugby wasn’t going to be a part of the new life that Leuila had planned for himself.
“Not many people know this but when I made the move to Hamilton, I was actually going to give up playing rugby,” Leuila tells RugbyPass. “At the start of last year, rugby wasn’t a thing. Rugby didn’t cross my mind. I didn’t want to play anymore and I didn’t have the passion for it.
“I lost my grandpa in 2015. He was my rock; he was everything to me. My grandpa and my grandma raised me – I call them mum and dad – so I’ve been with them my whole life and 2020 was probably the last straw when ma passed away. She passed away in November and I just didn’t want to play anymore.”
It took some convincing from Maia, but Leuila eventually linked up with Hamilton club side Fraser Tech. Unsurprisingly, Leuila credits his fiancée’s unrelenting urging with effectively turning around his rugby career.
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“We’ve been together for about six years now,” Leuila says of his fiancée. “Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to meet dad because he passed away before she had the chance. It’s a funny thing though because I always look up to the sky and I wonder if my grandpa had anything to do with why my fiancée is in my life. She’s just like him.
“He was always there for me, every step of the way for my rugby. Even when I made Auckland academy and stuff like that and we’d have trainings at 5:30 in the morning, he’d wake up early, wake me up, take me to training. He’d sleep outside in the carpark until we finished training.
“All my rugby games, even in torrential rain, he’d be standing there on the sidelines – even if he didn’t have an umbrella – he’d be there in the rain watching me. He was a stronghold for me, he was everything to me. I couldn’t play without him.
“He was always tough on me too. If I had a bad game, he wouldn’t waste any time telling me. I know most Pacific Islanders will know the feeling, the car ride home after a bad game is one of my all-time least favourite things.
“Now, Maia doesn’t waste any time telling me that I had a crap game. She’s always on my case about training, she’s always on my case about just going to the park and kicking. She reminds me so much of my dad. He spoke to me so much about rugby and she does the same thing.
“She’s been through a lot and she’s gained all that experience and she knows how to react to certain situations. She’s been a big influence and a massive help why this year has been a success for me. She’s one in a million.
“She always reminds me, ‘Your dad worked so hard to get you to a certain point in rugby and you don’t want to waste all his early mornings, all his standing in the rain and watching you play when you were young. You don’t want to throw that all away.’ That was another reason why I wanted to keep going and succeed in rugby. I didn’t want to let him down; I didn’t want to waste all his time that he gave up.”
While getting back into the club environment helped reignite Leuila’s interest in the game, it was still a struggle getting back out on the field for the first time.
“Being around that club and a good bunch of boys kind of just refuelled the fire in me to want to play rugby again,” he says.
“But it was still really hard, the first couple of weeks. Dad and mum were my everything. They were always on the sidelines and you could never miss them. When I ran onto the field for my first pre-season club game in Hamilton, I looked around and I honestly felt like I didn’t want to be there. I was just like ‘They’re not here, how am I going to get through this game?’”
But Leuila forged on and after a successful club campaign, Waikato came calling and asked Leuila to trial ahead of the provincial season.
“The Waikato coaches hit me up and asked me if I wanted to come along to Waikato trainings, so I said ‘Why not?’ My mindset going into it was I wasn’t expecting anything, all I could do was just get in there and put my best foot forward, get my foot in the door and see what happens. But if I didn’t make it, I didn’t really care. Coming into 2021, I wasn’t even planning on playing rugby so it didn’t really to me if I didn’t make it into the team.
“When they did say that I was going to be part of the squad for the year, there was a switch that flicked and my whole mindset change. I told myself that everybody deserves a second chance and I felt like that was my second chance. I wasn’t going to let the chance slip, let the opportunity slip. I knew straight away that I was going to grab it, hug it, hold it real tight and not let it go. And that’s what I did the whole year.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 10, 2022
Leuila started out the season playing second-fiddle to the experienced Fletcher Smith but a starting opportunity beckoned when Smith suffered a blow ahead of Waikato’s Ranfurly Shield challenge with Hawke’s Bay in Round 8 of the competition.
While Leuila would be the first to admit that he doesn’t necessarily have the same range of skills as his senior teammate, he made up for it with his ability to take the ball to the line and generate plenty of go-forward for his team. There was no better example in the competition final when Leuila received the ball off the top of the lineout and threw his 100kg frame into a Tasman forward to generate some crucial momentum for his side.
Despite being a key figure in Waikato’s championship season, however, Leuila’s rich run of form came too late to mount a serious case for inclusion in a Super Rugby squad. That wasn’t a major bother for Leuila, however, who had completed just his second season of provincial rugby after featuring for Auckland in 2019.
“I’m actually not fussed about [missing out on initial selection in a squad], given that it is my first year back playing provincial rugby,” says Leuila. Half the season I was coming off the bench and then by the time I was starting games, Super Rugby teams already had certain players in their teams.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, trying to play Super Rugby, and when I played for Waikato, that had been one of my goals, to make a Super Rugby team and gain some experience. I knew it was going to be hard, especially when you’re coming off the bench, to give all you can in the small amount of time you get.”
New side Moana Pasifika, however, picked the young Samoan test representative up in December as injury cover for the pre-season. While they’re not a side that Leuila grew up supporting, he’s hopeful that the new Super Rugby franchise will give young Pasifika players something to aspire to.
“Man, it’s been great. We don’t have to try and find connections in the team or create bonds because as Pacific Islanders, we’re all kind of one and we’re used to these kinds of connections.
“I think these guys will start on a high and I back them and support them 100 per cent. I’m seeing all the hard work they’re putting in for the season. Don’t doubt these guys just because it’s their first year, that’s all I’ve got to say. They’re ready to go and they’re training hard for it.
“I hope it gets the young generation looking and seeing Pacific Islanders playing in one team, playing in a big competition, and realising they can be here one day. Our young PI generation can excel to this point in life if they choose to. We’re just trying to give that service to our people.”
Now, Leuila has the opportunity to draw a line in the sand. Chances are, he’ll be spending the bulk of the season with Moana Pasifika and eventually there’ll be an opportunity for him to showcase his talents on the park – but the 24-year-old isn’t looking too far ahead.
“I’m taking it week-by-week and doing the best I can to get my foot in the door to get something stable. All I can do now is stay ready, train hard and keep working at it.
“When the opportunity comes, it’ll come, but the focus for me at the moment is making sure I train hard and get my foot in that door to hopefully gain some Super Rugby experience.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 10, 2022
And while Leuila is not getting too far ahead of himself, he still finds it hard to conceive what he and Waikato have accomplished over the past 12 months.
“It still hasn’t sunk in yet,” he says. “For someone like me, never in a million years did I think that I was going to win an NPC championship.
“I’ve been through a lot through my life. Me and rugby haven’t been best friends in the past. Growing up, we weren’t the wealthiest family. We didn’t have much. But my grandparents did so much to give us what we needed to succeed in life.
“My story isn’t different anyone else’s that grows up in South Auckland. There were a lot of different paths that I could have gone down – some not so good ones.
“Dad and mum mean so much to me, they were my whole world. All I can say is I thank them and I appreciate them so much. I miss them so much because without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
“I really want to make them proud and I really want them to see me blossoming in rugby and opening up and letting the world see their hard work and their dedication running out on the field and doing great.”
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