Throwback: Rodney So'oialo on Sri Lankan rugby mission, life as All Black

Has there been a more under-appreciated All Black in modern times than Rodney So'oialo?

Possibly, but he's at least top three.

A loose forward with that magical blend of versatility and accuracy, deft touch with ball in hand, stoic defence and a bottomless petrol tank, all tidily contained in a package of consummate professionalism.

The softly spoken 62-test international - enough to be ranked the second-most capped All Blacks No.8 ever, just quietly - is the first to admit that some of his contemporaries were perhaps more naturally talented.

But then, they probably weren't getting out of bed at 4:30am every morning - including rest days - to pound the pavement before back-to-back training sessions, all part of his constant pursuit of improvement and a desire to keep that black No.8 jersey on his back.

"I just think I wanted it a little bit more than they did, to be honest," So'oialo tells Newshub. "Was I the best No.8? No.

"They had a lot more skilled guys, a lot bigger guys, guys that were better ball carriers, but they couldn't get around the park and defensively, they weren't as good. 

"I think I just ran a bit harder, got a little bit fitter and then took my opportunities when they came. I based my game around every part of rugby and not just one individual aspect of it."

These days, the trademark dreadlocks are gone, but that same quiet focus remains, one he now applies to his newfound passion - coaching.

And where else do you go to sharpen those tools, but Sri Lanka. Obviously.

So'oialo has taken up a position as rugby director at Kandy's Trinity College - one of the most renowned private schools in the country and a place where rugby rules.

Now into his second year, he's left his wife, four kids and grandchild back home in Wellington to take charge of the school's First XV in a secondary schools competition that far outweighs its domestic and international counterparts in terms of popularity.

So'oialo with his Trinity College team.
So'oialo with his Trinity College team. Photo credit: The Papare Times

As So'oialo points out, rugby came to the small island nation, by way of English colonists, well before it reached New Zealand and still has a fervent base of support that gives even cricket a run for its money.

So'oialo was taken aback by the level of both the play and the country's devotion to the sport.

Given the national team is yet to come close to a World Cup berth, and struggles to regularly beat Malaysia and the Philippines, you could hardly blame him.

"They love their rugby here," he admits. "It's one of their main sports and that shocked me.

"The quality of rugby is actually okay. Their skillsets are pretty good, but obviously who they're exposed to playing against limits their growth."

At the heart of the country's love for the game are the intense annual rivalries between schools, which So'oialo says get as heated - if not more so - than those in New Zealand.

Victory over Trinity's bitter foes Royal College - enemies since 1876 - was top of So'oialo's wish list, until the sporting planet was shut down by a pandemic, of course. 

"It's a huge rivalry between the two schools and I think there's a lot more history behind this one, because it's almost 150 years old.

"They don't like each other and it's a little bit more fierce than they do at home, which is actually quite good to see."

So'oialo has tested the coaching waters since he retired after a one-year stint with Japan's Honda Heat in 2011, firstly as an assistant for Wellington clubs Tawa and Petone, then as forwards coach for the Wellington provincial side in 2017. 

But his experience helping the All Blacks prepare for the Lions tour that same year poured gasoline on that flaming ambition.

"I realised then that I'd like to go further, but I'd like to learn a lot more."

A friend offered him the chance to take up the Sri Lanka role, which brought an opportunity for So'oialo to gain priceless experience at the helm of an entire rugby programme, overseeing it from top to bottom.

"There's so much more to learn from running a whole programme, which I am doing right now - a whole group of kids, not only the junior programmes, but the senior ones as well."

It's certainly a long way from Porirua, from where a young So'oialo would travel weekly to play club rugby for Wests Roosters with older brother Steven, who would later represent Manu Samoa.

Even that journey felt like a voyage abroad for So'oialo, whose only ventures outside of Porirua were to Wellington and back for church on Sundays. 

Thrust into the first-grade side at 17, he was suddenly battling for a spot at the back of the scrum against good mate and recently named All Black Filo Tiatia.

"Back in those early days, Super Rugby players were playing club, so it was actually amazing to challenge yourself.

"To play for a club that had the All Black No.8 was actually quite good for me, because I was always pushing for that position. I'd always ask the coach to play me."

Rodney So'oialo today.
Rodney So'oialo today. Photo credit: Supplied

But So'oialo's most telling epiphany came during a national sevens camp in 1998, where battling a certain prodigious young South Aucklander provided all the validation he needed that he had the ability to hang with the game's elite.

"I was quite young when I made the sevens and we played against Jonah [Lomu]," he recalls. "I was like, 'wow'.

"Then you ended up training with the guy and you realise, actually, I really enjoy this and I can hold my own... if I could get him down, which was very hard to do.

"Coming in as a young kid, you really want to put a good shot on him and make a statement, which didn't always go down too well, but you always want to test yourself."

So'oialo carried that confidence and momentum into a breakout campaign for a stacked Wellington NPC squad, which included the likes of Ma'a Nonu, Jerry Collins, and Christian Cullen - a team he considers one of the best he's ever played with at any level.

After he made a huge impression with the Hurricanes, the national selectors realised the blossoming asset they had on their hands.

That ultimate step up eventually came with his naming to the All Blacks squad for their annual European tour in 2002, a moment he almost completely missed.

"I had a reasonably good season that year, so I thought I had a chance, but they had two other No.8s that were playing quite well in Xavier Rush and Mose Tuiali'i, so I thought my chances of getting into that end-of-year tour were probably 50/50.

"We had a whole bunch of family at home and we had a pretty big living room, but I couldn't get in to see the actual announcement.

"Then, when the announcement happened. I didn't actually hear it because everyone jumped up and I was at the back going 'did I get in?'"

So'oialo with teammate and close friend Ma'a Nonu.
So'oialo with teammate and close friend Ma'a Nonu. Photo credit: Getty

Obviously, hearing your name called for the first time is a moment any All Black holds dear, but good mate Jerry Collins' involvement made it even more memorable for So'oialo, who grins as he recalls what followed.

"I had just finished spending the night with Jerry Collins, because he'd come over for a few beers at home.

"He'd just left my house to get back to his place for the announcement, then he rings me back to say he's coming back straight away. I'm like, 'oh no, here we go again'."

So'oialo kicked off his eight-year tenure with the All Blacks against Wales at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium, celebrating his test baptism on one of the biggest international stages by driving prop Kees Meeuws over for a try in a in a 43-17 victory.

The highs of his All Blacks career were high - crushing France after they had mocked the haka in 2004, the Lions tour in 2005 - and the lows were low - THAT World Cup quarter-final defeat - but So'oialo has nothing but positive memories.

Famous wins, infamous losses - he's taken lessons from them all.

"Those were all learning experiences and if you're a close-minded person, you're not going to grow.

"I feel I learned from all those experiences and have grown from them already. I think they made me as a person and as a coach."

So'oialo celebrating the win over the Lions in 2005 with Jerry Collins and Keven Mealamu.
So'oialo celebrating the win over the Lions in 2005 with Jerry Collins and Keven Mealamu. Photo credit: Getty

Those lessons have also formed the foundation of his coaching style, adopting the tools he saw from those players whose leadership he'd admired and coaches whose style had always struck a chord with him.

Leading by example, rather than with words, was what made veteran All Blacks hooker Keven Mealamu so effective for So'oialo, while coach Wayne Smith's nuanced attention to detail gelled so effectively with his own rugby philosophy.

And just for the record, the 40-year-old looks like he could still bring some heat off the back of a scrum.

"I really liked Wayne Smith's coaching, because he challenged you mentally," So'oialo notes. "He forced you to think outside the square.

"Because I wasn't always the biggest No.8 around, I had to really analyse how I could make things more effective, just by doing a lot more analysis behind the scenes.

"Before he went into an environment, he'd start to have a look at what he's working with and see what he can do to grow it, and that's what I'm doing here. 

"That's something I love to do and that's how I like to coach."

So'oialo with Richie McCaw and Keven Mealamu.
So'oialo with Richie McCaw and Keven Mealamu. Photo credit: Getty

His time in Sri Lanka has already taught So'oialo plenty about the delicate balancing act that comes with coaching - how to strike that blend of player management, logistics and in-game management.

That inherent sense of ambition never really leaves a pro athlete and it almost goes without saying that So'oialo has his sights set on higher honours back home in Aotearoa.

But with his Trinity College side undefeated through nine games, So'oialo wants to ensure that momentum continues through the rest of the season and, when he moves on in the coming year, for the betterment of his beloved sport in Sri Lanka long term.

"The ultimate goal is that I definitely want go back to New Zealand and coach at a higher level - Super Rugby, Mitre 10 Cup - but I also want to leave Sri Lanka and Trinity College in a better place. 

"Part of my role is to grow the coaches as well, especially the ones who have a passion for the school, that will stay here and to continue to grow what we've done here."

"I've really enjoyed it. The people here are amazing, I've made a lot of friendships, and we get fresh fruit everyday. 

"You don't get that at home."