Why Luke Romano chose Blues over Highlanders and why he won't play for Italy
It’s no secret that Romano, the World Cup-winning former All Blacks lock who has won everything at every level of the game in New Zealand, has played a crucial role in the success the Blues have enjoyed this year.
That much was reflected by Mils Muliaina’s decision to pick the 36-year-old as his Super Rugby Pacific MVP for 2022 last month, a pseudo award that would likely be backed by Romano’s teammates and coaches at the Blues.
They’d be the first to outline how Romano’s vast experience and leadership has helped propel the Auckland-based franchise into this weekend’s Super Rugby Pacific semi-finals in the midst of a record-breaking 14-match unbeaten run.
Without him, valid questions could definitely be asked as to whether the Blues would even be in the hunt for their fifth piece of Super Rugby silverware.
It’s remarkable to think, then, that Romano might not have even played for the Blues this year were it not for head coach Leon MacDonald’s strong desire to have him part of the team’s set-up.
Told by Crusaders boss Scott Robertson at the beginning of last year’s Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign that he would be surplus to requirements in 2022, Romano only had two options to prolong his playing career in New Zealand.
One of which was to sign with the Blues, and the other was to join the Highlanders after he was head-hunted by recently-departed head coach Tony Brown.
Acknowledging his playing days were nearing an end, Romano spurned both offers, but MacDonald’s relentless pursuit of the Crusaders centurion was enough to help persuade him to swap Christchurch for Auckland.
“At the end of the day, it comes down to me and my family, and me having to provide for my family,” Romano told RugbyPass earlier this week of his decision to sign with the Blues.
“It was based around what was best for me and my family and stuff like that, so I was just fortunate that Leon was persistent and didn’t go and get someone else and then I lost that opportunity. That was probably the big reason behind it.
“Tony Brown down at the Highlanders was interested, but I said no to them and I’d also said no to the Blues, so then they [the Highlanders] obviously signed other players.
“Leon was being pretty persistent and that, but hindsight’s a great thing. Things happened for a reason, and you look back now going, ‘Yeah okay, it was the right decision to make to come up to the Blues’.
“It’s one, hopefully, that we can finish off and make it a really good year.”
That translates to capping off this season by clinching the inaugural Super Rugby Pacific title, an assignment that continues this weekend when they host the Brumbies in a semi-final showdown at Eden Park in Auckland on Saturday.
Victory in that match, which doubles as Romano’s 150th Super Rugby match, could pit the Blues in a grand final clash against the Crusaders, who face off against the Chiefs in Christchurch on Friday.
Such a spectacle would be of particular significance for Romano, given he was a member of the Crusaders between 2011 and 2021, during which time he won five Super Rugby and Super Rugby Aotearoa titles.
His on-field contributions for the Christchurch-based side shrank the closer he got to the end of his time at the franchise, though, as he made only two bench appearances in his final campaign last year.
However, Romano has no hard feelings about the way things transpired down south.
“At the end of the day, I was 36 last year and rugby’s a job that it doesn’t last forever,” Romano told RugbyPass of his departure from the Crusaders.
“You can’t work until retirement age playing rugby, so I’d come to terms with my career was coming to an end.
“Razor [Robertson] had a yarn to me right at the start of that season and said, ‘Look, we’re not going to re-sign you again, this is your last year here’.
“While it was disappointing to hear, Razor gave me all that time to sort out what I was going to do post the 2021 season, and you’ve got to respect him for that.
“A lot of guys come in at the end of the year saying, ‘Sorry, that’s it, you’re done’. He was open and upfront about it, and that’s the way pro sport is.”
Since then, Romano has helped the Blues snap an 18-year losing streak in Christchurch, starting in the second row as he beat his former teammates in a groundbreaking result at Orangetheory Stadium two months ago.
The 31-test international was also part of the Blues teams that scored tightly-contested away wins over the Brumbies and Waratahs in recent weeks, enabling them to take the league’s top spot heading into the playoffs.
According to him, those victories are reflective of the winning experiences the “mind-boggling” talent at the Blues are beginning to accrue on a regular basis, which he said puts the side in good stead for the foreseeable future.
“Right up there,” Romano said when asked how this current Blues side compares to title-winning Crusaders teams he was involved with in previous years.
“I think you’ve heard it in the media and things like that, there are certain games there that the media would say, ‘The Blues of old would have lost that’.
“You’ve got to think that, two or three years ago, a lot of the players that are with the Blues now were so young, fresh out of school and they were 20-years-old.
“Now they’re two or three years more experienced, and that’s what happens when you gain experience at this level. You understand what it takes to win and what it takes to be able to perform week-in, week-out.
“The Blues have now got that and they’re going to have it for a long time because there are a lot of guys in the team who are 23, 24-years-old. They could play here for another 10 years quite easily.”
By contrast, Romano is yet to cement his playing future beyond the current Super Rugby Pacific campaign, and hasn’t even confirmed that he will return to Canterbury in this year’s NPC.
A decision to return to the Blues next year is also yet to be made, but there is plenty to consider before Romano locks anything in.
“We’ll just have to see how I feel, just the way my body feels and whether I can do it all again because I’m not the type of person to chill out and relax and just get a pay cheque,” he told RugbyPass.
“I can’t do that. I have to go 100, I have to give it my all. If I can’t do that, then I don’t want to do that to a team.
“If I commit, I have to commit fully and I have to be able to do what I’ve always done, so that’s something me and my wife and family will think about. Whatever happens, happens.”
If anything is certain, it’s that Romano won’t be turning out for Italy at test level, a prospect that has been made feasible under World Rugby’s new eligibility laws.
Having last played for the All Blacks in 2017, Romano has completed a three-year stand down period from international rugby, making him eligible for Italy selection through his grandfather.
Romano, however, shot down any suggestion that he would make an international return with the Italians at next year’s World Cup in France.
“Actually, a few of the boys were talking about that last week, saying that I play one more year and then go and play for Italy in the World Cup,” he laughed.
“I think that’s probably a bit far-fetched. That’d be pretty rough to even try and do that and then someone who’s worked hard misses out on the Italian team because some old bastard from New Zealand comes over just to play in the World Cup.
“That’d be a pretty rough thing to do, so that’s probably a pretty far-fetched idea, I think.”
Instead, Romano’s focus is squarely on ensuring the Blues reach next week’s final in a match that most onlookers hope will also feature the Crusaders, although that’s a concept he refuses to entertain just yet.
“I think just to make the Super Rugby final is a dream scenario,” Romano said.
“Obviously we’ve got to get past the Brumbies. You can’t look too far ahead, otherwise you’ll get your pants pulled down and look like a dick, so we’ll concentrate on this game.
“If we’re lucky enough to play a good game and get the win, we’ll meet who we meet.”
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