Luke Romano is a refreshing throwback to the old school, almost an oddity in professional rugby.
His path to the All Blacks followed a rare road, nearly unheard of in the modern era.
Romano wasn't a standout youngster. He never impressed the local representative selectors, or progressed through the now institutionalised talent-spotting systems.
"I didn't come through any academies or anything like that," Romano recalled yesterday in Cardiff. "I just worked and played club footy on the weekends."
After leaving Christchurch Boys' High School Romano picked up his tools like a regular Kiwi bloke and hammered away from 7.30am until 5pm, five days a week, first alongside his brother, before finishing his building apprenticeship four years later.
Like thousands of other club rugby players around the country, he trained Tuesday and Thursday and gave his guts for the High School Old Boys jersey.
At that stage, money, fame and the prospect of playing for the All Blacks was a dream.
Unlike the somewhat pampered new-age player, Romano first learned to hold down a real job. He, therefore, has an appreciation and perspective of what life entails off the field.
"The age of the professional rugby player is getting lower and lower," Romano said. "A lot of guys come out of school and one or two years out they are in a professional team. Most guys get plucked out of school and brought into the academies.
"They don't know what it's like to work until they leave the professional arena, and that could be after 10 years."
Romano is a grafter. Not a naturally gifted athlete. What he lacks in subtlety and lineout wisdom he makes up for with scrummaging strength, physicality at the cleanout, and ball-carrying prowess.
Building primed him for the brutal collisions.
"You are either that rough and rugged type of person or you aren't. I guess working outside doing foundations and it's raining and you are in the mud and it's cold and windy, I guess you get a certain bit of hardness out of that," he said.
The tool belt has not been totally cast aside. The fact that Romano plans, one day, to return to his original trade is a reflection of his humble beginnings.
"I've still got them [tools]. You might potter around at home and do a few things, but actually going out and building on a site, you don't have time for that.
"It's a lot different to what my lifestyle is now, but the skills I learned as a builder held me in good stead. It's something I enjoy doing, building, so it's something I'll probably take up after I stop playing."
Scrapping for promotion, and then having to bide his time behind Brad Thorn, Tom Donnelly and All Blacks locking partner Sam Whitelock to make his mark at Canterbury and the Crusaders turned out to be a blessing.
Romano realised young that his body needed to mature before it would be ready for the rigours of professional rugby. Many players do not have that choice and can end up burnt out.
"My last year at school I actually crushed a vertebra in my back, purely because my bones were still soft. It was actually from a scrum. Just the pressure going through my back and being young and the bones hadn't hardened off.
"It crushed one side of my vertebra by 20 per cent, so that shows if you are thrown into too high a level of rugby early on it can have a harmful effect on your body," he said.
"I guess I was chucked in at an age when I'd finished growing."
There is little doubt the second-oldest All Black lock in Steve Hansen's squad is a late bloomer.
He is now 26, and it is hard to believe that just three years ago he made his first professional team.
Romano's unique background helped craft his solid rugby foundations.
He is now trying to make up for lost time and construct a fittingly sturdy All Black career. That continues at Millennium Stadium tomorrow.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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