Four teams for Leni Apisai in one crazy Super Rugby season
“It was a funny old year, eh,” says laid-back Leni Apisai with a level of restraint Harry Houdini would be jealous of. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Yesterday, the 26-year-old hooker was called up to the Māori All Blacks squad to face Ireland, but his has been a season of ceaseless switches – the phrase ‘have boots; will travel’ has never been more apt. He has played a part for four different Kiwi franchises in one Super Rugby Pacific season.
He explains: “I was approached by the Chiefs to do the pre-season with them, just while the All Blacks were on leave. So I managed to play in the two pre-season games that they had, leading into the competition.
“In round one, the whole competition moved down to Queenstown and the Chiefs took four hookers – the three contracted guys and myself. There was an injury at the Highlanders, so after the Chiefs played them, I packed up my suitcases and walked down the road to the next hotel to join them.
“That (have boots, will travel mentality) is kind of how I saw things this season because, with Moana Pasifika joining the competition, the player pool for replacements got a little smaller. There was Covid too. So it was making sure I was injury-free so that if my phone did ring then I was able to just pick up and go, just like that.”
The No 2 reckons he spent close to three months as a Highlander, but he was in and out like the Hokey Cokey. Having spent several weeks with the franchise, he headed back to his family in Wellington, by which point the Hurricanes needed some cover. Then, he was up and down to the Highlanders a few more times.
But it didn’t end there.
“The Crusaders had just had a four-week stint over in Australia, they were on the way home and then they called and said that they needed (training) cover for the next couple of weeks,” he goes on. “So I went to Christchurch on the week they played the Drua, and this is all happening within 48 hours.
“They played the Drua and then I was with them for the last round-robin game, against the Reds. Then on a Monday afternoon, I was flying back to Wellington to see my kids and my partner, just to spend the day with them. And I get a phone call from the forwards coach at the Crusaders (Jason Ryan). And it’s, ‘Hey mate, I just got a call from the Landers. They’ve got an injury again and they’re asking for you. We’re happy for you to join them if you’re keen.’
“I’m on my way back to Wellington but I need to get down to Dunedin. So the next day on I had to fly from Wellington to Christchurch to pick up all my gear, pack my Highlanders gear that I had at home, go from Christchurch to Dunedin on Wednesday… And then I travelled with them to Melbourne.”
Apisai never played for the Crusaders, but taking to the training field with them meant he had completed his set of linking up with each of the New Zealand franchises through his career (he was with the Blues from 2018 to 2021). And anyway, playing a pre-season or regular-season game for three others in one season is quite enough.
Apisai describes his partner as “a real one” for holding the fort, juggling studying and looking after their two boys, a toddler and baby, while he has been hurling balls all around New Zealand and beyond.
In years gone by he has represented the Blues, Hurricanes and Sunwolves, but this was something far more dizzying. Even when he got called up to the ‘Canes this season, amidst flying shuttle up and down the country, the cruel twist was that he was off to Australia with the team while the family were in Wellington.
The hooker jokes that he has had some friends come out of the woodwork looking for a coffee; a ploy, he suspects, to snaffle some of the hoards of kit he has accumulated over the season. And that’s nothing compared to the clutter of calls and lineout systems he has had to cram into his skull over the season. He says he prides himself on the set-piece planning, but still… Four teams!
Now there is the Māori All Blacks camp to look forward to. Then there’s the NPC season where he runs out for Auckland (because, of course, a different territory!).
As for the future, Apisai feels he owes it to his newly-graduated, primary school teacher partner to spend the next few years in New Zealand. But beyond that, or if the right offer comes in, they would be open to moving overseas. Things just have to be right for a family man who has clocked up quite a few miles already, just in his own borders.
What has learnt from all of this, then?
“Making sure that you are ready when called upon,” he replies. “When I first started, I was 19 when I debuted for the Hurricanes. I didn’t think I would play at all. We had Dane Coles and Motu Matu’u. I didn’t think I’d cruise through, but I didn’t think I’d play.
“Now, regardless of if I’m gonna play, I always prepare as if I will play. So that if I am called upon, then I’m ready to go on. That’s how I took this season, because I knew that it was such a unique year and if I just stayed injury-free and was available, something was gonna pop up around the country, somewhere, at some point in time.”
Whatever happens next for Leni Apisai, one thing is for sure: the man is no stranger to an airport terminal.
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