Lelia Masaga will be a Warrior chief in the west

Under the radar: Lelia Masaga may have slipped into Glasgow quietly but hes been a star with the Chiefs. Photograph: John Devlin/Getty Images
Under the radar: Lelia Masaga may have slipped into Glasgow quietly but hes been a star with the Chiefs. Photograph: John Devlin/Getty Images
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There is a scene in the 1963 film Anthony and Cleopatra where Elizabeth Taylor as the queen is first introduced to Rome. She sits atop a giant Sphinx which is pulled by several thousand slaves, preceded by a troop of cavalry with the brass section trumpeting her arrival. That is how former All Blacks are traditionally introduced to their new clubs, but somehow Lelia Masaga slipped into Glasgow almost unnoticed.

It may be our own cynicism after the Warriors’ last All Black, the flanker Angus Macdonald, managed exactly one start in his one-year stint at Scotstoun, but Masaga is a cut above. The winger boasts a Super Rugby strike-rate of one try every 2.4 matches, which is good going when Julian Savea is on 2.3. As well as a nose for the try line, Masaga also displays a healthy line in sarcasm.

“It’s a horrible club and a horrible city,” he replies when asked for his first impressions of Glasgow. He had been given a less than favourable impression of his new home by Stephen “Beaver” Donald, the man who was famously hauled off his fishing trip by Graham Henry to win RWC’11 for the host nation.

The veteran fly-half not only whispered poison in Masaga’s ear as a wind-up but he persuaded half the Chiefs’ squad to do the same so the winger arrived in Glasgow carrying several bags of excess apprehension.

“No, it’s a beautiful city,” Masaga is back on message. “I got a really bad impression of what Glasgow was going to be but when I got here on my first day it was the opposite to what everyone was saying.

“My team-mates have welcomed me to this team, they are very kind people that live here and I have nothing but good words to say about Glasgow and Scotland.”

His one All Black cap came back in 2009 against Italy but oddly enough the winger insists that he never yearned to play for the All Blacks when he was growing up. And if one cap may not seem like a lot, it was a good effort from a kid who quit the game altogether for five formative years.

“There are a lot of one All Blacks out there and there are a hell of a lot of none All Blacks out there,” he says. “It was never my dream to put on that jersey. If anything my dream was just to become a professional rugby player.

“My father taught me the ropes and watched me and supported me and when he passed away I gave that [rugby] up for a chunk of my life at the age of 12.

“I just completely stopped playing on a Saturday. I found no need to carry on playing rugby because when you score a try when you are a kid you tend to look to the sideline to see how proud your old man is and not being able to look to the sidelines because he’s not there it was, yeah, quite difficult.

“Then there came to a point in my life in my last year at high school when I didn’t know what I was going to do. My family had a bit of a hard patch, we were getting kicked out of our house, my mum was working three jobs and struggling and I needed to find work.”

He applied for a job at MacDonalds but was rejected for being over-qualified so Masaga returned to rugby and things snowballed from there on. He played for Counties Manakau, Bay of Plenty and, of course, the Chiefs whom he helped to two Super Rugby titles.

The pinnacle of his career will always be that All Black appearance against Italy aged 22 but as time progressed it became clear that he was not on Steve Hansen’s radar, “I don’t think I was at the standard required of an All Black”.

Masaga quit New Zealand for the lucrative Japanese market and he came very close to playing for the Cherry Blossoms. One more year with the Honda Heat would have enabled him to apply for a passport. He even had talks about turning out for the Japanese sevens team which would allow him to play for Japan in RWC’19 despite that All Black cap.

It didn’t happen. “A few things happened that I wasn’t comfortable with,” he confides without going into detail. Instead of turning Japanese, the Kiwi flyer enjoyed another year of Super Rugby with the Chiefs in 2017 before setting his sites on… France!

“I was ready to go to France but I had a talk with Rens [Dave Rennie] and he was really keen to get me to come over to Scotland,” Masaga explains.

“And knowing Dave Rennie’s history of looking after players and getting players in and involving the family in the community, I missed a bit of that in Japan, and I knew if I followed him and Phil Healy our trainer (a childhood friend) I knew that they were the two that would probably bring the best out of me.

“After four years in Japan, I had slacked off a little bit because the professionalism over there wasn’t as good as I thought it was. And this is a window now to try and get me back to the standard I had when I left the Chiefs in 2013. I have plenty of rugby [left] in me, I just needed to be under the right trainer and coach.”

It was Masaga who once stated that Rennie was unique amongst rugby coaches and it appears that the Kiwi combines the twin roles of boss and buddy a little more effectively than David Brent.

“You have a normal coach who mainly wants to focus on winning and being the best we can be,” says the winger, “and Rens is exactly the same but there is a side of him that most people don’t see.

“So after a game you don’t often see a coach sitting in the same room and having a quiet drink with all the boys. Some of the [Glasgow] boys were amazed that you could enjoy a cold drink with the coach and talk about those areas of the game that you think you could have done better.

“The other side of it is that off-field he really wants to know you one to one, he considers you as part of the family and he likes to involve the community as well.

“At the Chiefs we all had a bike and our training ground was the High Schools, we’d bike to their school and train on their grounds just to get ourselves out there and into the community and that is what I like.”

Having won two Super Rugby titles under Rennie, just how far away are this Glasgow squad from repeating those heroics?

“A team like this I don’t really think they are far off it.”

It doesn’t sound like sarcasm.