Steven Luatua - tough year no reason to feel blue
Rugby has always come so easily to Steven Luatua, the sound of the applause in his ears tended to drown out any nagging doubts or pointed criticism.
Until this year. Until one of New Zealand's best young players faced a reality check of potentially shattering dimensions. For the first time in his fledgling rugby life, Luatua has had to look within for the answers to some searching questions, and he doesn't mind admitting it's been an exacting, if cathartic, process.
In 2013 Luatua could seemingly do no wrong as he followed a standout Super Rugby season for the Blues with a wildly successful 11-test rookie campaign in the All Blacks. He was by any definition one of the finds of the year, and appeared to have the rugby world at his feet.
Then that world was turned upside down.
Jerome Kaino returned from Japan to cast a rather large shadow over the country's loose forward stock, and Luatua suddenly found backing up his exploits of 2013 a little more challenging than he expected.
First he was squeezed out as a starter at the Blues by the more energetic Peter Saili and classy Kaino; then he was cut loose by the All Blacks, missing the initial squad for the June series before earning a reprieve via Kieran Read's ongoing head issues.
What's more, his coaches were publicly expressing their misgivings about his form, fitness and workrate. Those cheers had become jeers, and it was something the now 24-year-old Aucklander had to get his head around.
It's fair to say, as Luatua takes his place at No 6 for the Blues in Saturday night's penultimate round-robin clash against the Crusaders in Christchurch, that he's successfully negotiated those turbulent waters. A super-charged, statement-making display last Saturday night in Perth appeared to confirm that.
"I definitely walked off the field feeling that much more proud," he reflected of a 40-14 victory that kept the Blues' playoffs hopes alive. "It's been a while since I've felt that way and I was kinda pleased with it."
Luatua said the challenges of this season forced him to look internally and to re-examine the process that had taken him so far in 2013. "I wouldn't say I've enjoyed it but it could be good for me. Taking this backward step in order to come forward has put me in better stead."
The strapping 1.94m, 115kg athletic specimen has also taken a lot of advice on board, and come up with one glaring conclusion.
"It's pretty much all boiled down to this: it's all on me. If I want to perform I'll perform, if I want to take a backward step, then its all on me because no one else can control that."
He admits the criticism has been tough to take at times, but coming from men he respects like Steve Hansen and Sir John Kirwan, he's taken it on the chin. Getting an unexpected shot back in the All Black environment had also been "humbling" and extremely valuable - the upshot his exhilarating return to form in Perth.
Asked about the messages he received, Luatua pauses to ponder the question. It's something this reflective young man does a lot.
"They just want me to get more involved. How do you get more involved? You've got to be fitter. That's the simplest message they gave to me. They trust that I can do the job, but to get more involved I need to be able to run more, and get my hands on the ball more."
Refreshingly, Luatua puts none of his struggles on Kaino. The return of the World Cup-winner was, he says, irrelevant to his own form dropoff. If anything, he says the veteran has inspired all around him with his unstinting physicality, commitment and consistency.
And on Saturday night? "It's crunch time. We need to back it up. We need to play like that first 20 minutes in Perth for 80. Good teams do it once; great teams do it week in, week out. It's going to be an arm-wrestle, and the team that has that mental toughness is going to win."
Given what he's been through, Luatua definitely has his head round that battle.
Which rugby player who's off overseas would you most like to see back playing in NZ?