THE last World Cup was a bittersweet memory for Michael Ala’alatoa and, while he cherished his time in Japan he was left frustrated by the experience of playing with a poorly prepared Samoa side.
ow under the tutelage of former London Irish centre Seilala Mapusua, the Islanders are enjoying their best run of form in some time and their captain is firmly looking forward to next year’s tournament in France.
Before then, he has unfinished business with Leinster.
Last year, the big prop – whose father Vili played for Western Samoa in the 1991 World Cup while brother Allan represents Australia – arrived from the Crusaders to act as back-up to Tadhg Furlong and had a largely solid campaign.
Still, he headed off on holidays last summer with plenty of regret about the way the season ended.
Having been a perennial winner in New Zealand, he’d hoped to continue the trend with the United Rugby Championship’s dominant force, but they couldn’t close the deal against La Rochelle and then got ambushed by the Bulls.
“I wouldn’t say we’re still processing (those defeats), but there’s definitely learnings we’re taking from that process,” Ala’alatoa said.
“But, as far as I’m concerned this is a new season and we’re treating it like that.
“I’m not saying it’s a clean slate, but at the same time we’ve every chance as much as any other team to go and do what we want to do which is win the Champions Cup and the URC.
“What happened last year, we can’t use that as an excuse.”
Personally, he enjoyed his first season.
“It definitely has lived up to my expectations, I’ve enjoyed the rugby,” he said.
“It’s different rugby to Southern Hemisphere, I feel like here at Leinster we try and play an attacking brand, but a lot of the teams in Europe try to slow us down a bit.
“It’s taken a while for me to get used to that mindset of the other teams.
“In the Southern Hemisphere it’s just attack versus attack, all out attack.
“So, yeah, it took a while for me to get my head around that.
“With that, we have to be really accurate in what we’re doing, nail every moment and every chance we get with the ball we need to execute.
“With that comes pressure as well, we played a few big games last year where we fell short.
“Those were great experiences for me, playing in those games, and I want to take that forward this year.”
On the pitch things have worked out, but off it Ala’alatoa, his wife Kara and their young family are relishing life in the Irish capital.
“Off the pitch, it’s been great, we’ve enjoyed Dublin. We don’t live far from UCD, I’ve done some travel around Ireland as well.
“The summer’s been amazing, a lot better than when we arrived last year and having those restrictions! Being able to see some of the popular spots, it’s been really good.
“Being in Europe, being able to travel one hour here or two hours there to places with completely different cultures – we were in Italy last week and it was only my second time there, I was pinching myself playing in those countries.
“It’s been class.
“We went to West Cork, Clonakilty a few weeks ago for a few nights and went to Inchydoney Beach – the weather was class, we spent the whole day there.
“We went to a place in Cavan called Cabu Cabins and that was really nice as well.
“We’ve got friends in Galway and the weather’s a bit hit and miss, but it’s a good place to go to.
“We’ve been to a lot of places, Belfast as well for a week. We’ve made the most of the time we’ve had here.
“It’s been enjoyable, it’s important to my family to get out and adventure. It’s been good.
“One thing that my wife loves doing is travelling, so being on this side of the world and being able to travel to all these different countries has been unbelievable for her as well.
“It’s something to look forward to being here, we are a bit isolated being away from all of our family and friends back home but we do have something to look forward to whenever we have a bit of down-time.
“She gets up for that, looks forward to that. My kids do as well.”
Discovering Europe was a big part of his decision to come, but so was the World Cup.
“Winning the Pacific Nations gives us a whole new level of belief, all three games we were down with around 20 minutes to go or half-time and we managed to come back and win,” he recalled.
“In the past, Samoan teams would just fall over, we showed a lot of care and pride in the jersey. Pride in what we’re trying to achieve as a group. I hope the team that plays in November takes it forward.
“I’m sure there’ll be changes, but the foundation is there.”
“Definitely, I think we have Chile first up (at the World Cup) so who knows what we’ll get from them.
“They’ll be up for it, targeting that first game as the one to shock the world.
“For Samoa, we’re really heading in the right direction to put our best foot forward.”
To get there, Ala’alatoa knows he needs minutes. Tonight, he starts against Benetton and he wants to play as much as he can this season.
“I want to be in the first team as much as possible, I’m not here just to be on the bench. I want to put my hand up to be the best player I can be,” he said.
“Whatever Leo chooses to do is up to him, but I want to make it hard for him to choose between myself and someone else.
“I feel like if I do that it will set me up for whatever comes off the back of that like a World Cup and playing in those European games as well.”