Year after year, droves of New Zealand Super Rugby players make the decision to pack their bags and head north to Europe. In 2018, former Hawke’s Bay first five Ihaia West did exactly that and is now representing La Rochelle in France alongside the likes of Victor Vito and Tawera Kerr-Barlow, as well as director of rugby Jono Gibbes.
La Rochelle first came calling around the time of the British and Irish Lions Tour in 2017 – when West famously raced away for the Blues to score the match-winning try against the tourists and consign them to their first loss of the series.
“La Rochelle wanted me the year before we eventually came over here but we thought we weren’t quite ready to move yet,” West told RugbyPass.
“So we decided to stay in New Zealand and I went to the Hurricanes and that’s when I thought, ‘Well, La Rochelle, that’s finished. We’re going to have to look somewhere else.’ But then when we decided that we wanted to head overseas, they were still keen and I was lucky enough to sign with them. We’re pretty stoked that it ended up working out how it did and we ended up here.”
It wasn’t an easy decision for West to make. Five years earlier, he had been approached by the Rebels to relocate across the Tasman Sea but the then-22-year-old had reservations about leaving home.
“At that stage, I was a real home boy,” West said. “I hated leaving home. The thought of leaving New Zealand and moving to Melbourne by myself was pretty scary, so that was a big driving factor behind staying in NZ.”
By the time West was considering heading a bit further afield to France, it wasn’t just him making the decisions, and after he and wife Dannielle had spent a year closer to both their homes in Wellington, they eventually decided to take the plunge – but not without seeking some outside advice.
“Rene Ranger ended up signing for La Rochelle and I talked to him a little bit, but Ranger’s a bit of a different character so you never quite know what he’s saying is true or not,” West joked.
“But I talked to Tawera as well when he was over here and I talked to Dan Waenga – when I was growing up, he was a big brother figure, so I talked to him about the game in France and he was saying how it’s such a different game and how long the seasons are and stuff like that so I had an inkling about what it was like over here.”
Of course, hearing second-hand about the lengthy seasons is nothing like actually being involved in one yourself and West quickly learned that the Top 14 was slightly more demanding than Super Rugby back in New Zealand.
“I think when we got here it in 2018, it was the first week of competition,” West said. “I arrived and did a bit of training with the boys and then I think I played round three, so I had a couple of weeks training and then was straight into it.
“Before we signed, we had a talk that you don’t play every game because the French teams have big squads and they like to rotate and rest guys and stuff like that – and then I got over here and played 32 games in my first season.”
The challenges faced playing the lengthy Top 14 season are well known with former All Black Colin Slade also recently revealing he was somewhat taken aback at how different playing in the French competition is compared to playing in the leagues back in New Zealand – that didn’t stop him from having a blast of a time, however, and West has expressed similar sentiments.
“If I knew what it was like over here before I came over, I probably would’ve come over earlier,” admitted West.
“You learn a whole lot over here about playing in different conditions – you’re playing in all the different seasons. I think spending some time here would definitely be beneficial for young boys to improve their knowledge of rugby and things like that.
“Lifestyle-wise, it’s awesome to be able to travel and speak a different language and just get to see the world.”
The varying seasons certainly have a bigger impact on the game in France than in the Southern Hemisphere, with temperatures and conditions in New Zealand fairly mild compared to what players must navigate in the north.
“At the start of the season, you’re playing in the afternoon. It’s late 20’s, 30 degrees, the sun’s on your back and you’re just throwing the ball around having fun,” said West. “Then a few months later, you’re playing in the freezing cold at 9PM at night with pissing down rain. At the end of the season, it’s back to sun. So you go through these phases where you have to play so much different rugby.
“I remember Jono got over here maybe a quarter or a third way through our first season [having helped Waikato earn promotion into the Mitre 10 Cup premiership]. He told me during December that the next couple of months would always be the toughest, because it’s pouring down rain, it’s cold, you’re playing late at night. So yeah, you definitely need to learn how to be able to play in all types of conditions and all times of the day over here, which is good. I enjoy that battle as well.
Anyone who’d seen West play in New Zealand would know that the fleetfooted flyhalf preferred a wide-open game where his natural abilities would flourish but the playmaker has had to adjust his game since arriving in France due to those long winters.
“When I got over here, La Rochelle were known for attacking rugby and just running from everywhere and playing with a bit of razzle-dazzle so it suited my system,” said West. “But with the season being so long over here, you have to adjust.
“I’ve always been known to be a running first five and things like that but if you kick your goals and you put your team in the right parts of the field, everyone loves you over here. It took me a while to realise that but that’s a big part of my game that I’ve had to work on over here.
“Kicking is obviously a big part of game management and when I was younger, I was always like, ‘Ok, nothing’s on. We can’t pass the ball. We can’t run the ball. I’m just going to kick it.’ I was kicking it just to not have it. Whereas later on, I started to realize that a kicking game can become a weapon for us.
“That’s especially true for the game in France; you put a team in that corner, you force into a defensive line out, and it can be a really, really big gain for the team and it gets the forwards up and things like that. So it’s definitely been a big part of growth and learning that I’ve realized in the last couple of years, I suppose.”
One-test All Blacks first-five Josh Ioane's midfield experiment for the Highlanders is over.https://t.co/tIiTL5yis0
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 27, 2020
That wasn’t the only challenge the No.10 faced when he first arrived, however. It’s one thing controlling a game, calling the shots and ordering a forward pack around the field when you’re new to a team, but it’s an entirely different challenge when you don’t speak the same language. Given he had just a few weeks to gel with the team before he was thrust into action, it’s a wonder West was able to maintain control at all.
“It’s easy to pick up calls just because you need to remember a word and stuff,” he said. “But if I wanted to do something, it was hard to try and get that across to the other boys and vice versa.
“A few of the French boys can speak broken English, which makes it easier and we’ve got a good group of foreigners here as well which helps but the language barrier definitely makes it a bit more difficult over here.”
One massive help for West has been having fellow Kiwi Kerr-Barlow in the halves and the French’s propensity to split the playmaking duties between the 9 and 10 has also taken some of the burden off the pivot.
“A lot of teams over here like the halfback to kick their goals and the halfbacks do all the exit kicking just from box kicks and things like that,” West said. “So yeah, it’s definitely shared where in New Zealand it’s mainly the 10.
“It was actually really good to have Tawera here to be able to speak properly with him and be able to understand each other. Tawera likes to play like he’s a loose forward – not much has changed. He’s still right into the niggle side of the game and trying to get on top of his opposite and things like that but we’ve talked about how the 9 has got a big role over here in terms of controlling the game and doing a lot more kicking. He’s been really good in that aspect of the game as well.”
The French Top 14 season was called to a halt at the beginning of March due to coronavirus and next season won’t be kicking off until September, which will allow West and his teammates an exceptionally long pre-season before they take to the trenches once more.
Despite the challenges that come with moving continent, both on and off the field, the former Blues and Hurricanes first five has thoroughly enjoyed his two seasons in the west of France and is looking forward to getting back onto the park later in the year.
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