Wallabies hooker Tolu Latu says a simple conversation with Michael Cheika when he was at his lowest ebb this season turned his fortunes around.
Only four months ago, Latu’s World Cup hopes looked to be hanging by a thread with the hooker set to miss half the Super Rugby season for on and off-field discipline issues.
A six-week suspension for foul play against the Sunwolves in round two, a punishment that divided opinion, put him on the sidelines for the early part of the year.
Just three games into his return an off-field sanction proved another setback for Latu.
The 26-year-old was charged with drink driving midweek in Sydney, before a Friday night match against the Reds but failed to inform NSW officials of the incident.
When the Waratahs found out, via the media, the team was already in Brisbane and Latu played that night but was stood down for the next two matches, and missed another for a court date.
That same weekend, Latu was set to be part of a Wallabies camp that weekend in Brisbane but instead he was sent back to Sydney, leaving his Japan chances very much up in the air.
It was a conversation with Cheika before he stepped on the plane home that he said was a timely wake-up call.
“There wasn't really one (turning) point but I remember talking to Michael at the camp just before I got sent home and he just said to get my stuff sorted and if I do get another opportunity, make sure I take up that opportunity and make the most of it,” he said.
“At the time, I didn't think I would be here in this position and I'm truly grateful and thankful for the opportunity.”
Latu has taken his chances at Test level this year, certainly the form hooker for the Wallabies through the Rugby Championship ultimately completing
While his off-field indiscretion created headlines this year, his discipline on the field has been just as damaging for the Wallabies in recent seasons.
Latu was handed yellow cards in two Tests in 2018, including after a to and fro with All Blacks hooker Codie Taylor.
Taylor admitted after that clash that he antagonised Latu, knowing he was prone to brain fades in matches.
Latu hasn’t seen a card in 2019 and said he had focused on improving that area of his game.
“Cheik spoke to me about that and pointed to that as one of the areas that I needed to work on,” he said.
“It's tough at times, whether you think you're right (or not), the ref is always right so it's been a part of my game that I've been trying to work on from the back end of last year.”
The abrasive hooker said there wasn’t one particular method he was using to keep his infringements in check, just listening.
“To be honest I couldn't tell you what I'm thinking on the time on the field but I just go off my gut feeling,” he said.
“Once I hear the ref say, ‘Leave it alone, leave the ball,’ then I'm just hands off straight away.”
Wallabies prop Scott Sio said Latu had proven his desire in the wake of the challenges he has faced this season.
“I think like anyone there are certain challenges you're going to face in life but like we've always said it's the reaction after it and how you keep pulling through that will show your character,” he said.
“His journey wasn't the one we all like to read in books and so forth but he is where he is today because he’s worked extremely hard to put himself in this position and give himself the opportunity to represent his country on our biggest stage.
“Credit to him - he understands that it’s a daily process, he needs to keep working to make himself better and keep getting better for the team and we've definitely noticed that and pretty excited to run alongside him this weekend.”
Cheika said Latu was proving to be more consistent than ever before in the lead-up to this tournament, earning him htat starting position over fellow World Cup first-timers Jordan Uelese and Folau Fainga’a.
"I think they all got a bit of a chance in the Rugby Championship and what I've liked about Tolu is his consistency in games and his training has been very regular, which is the first time I've seen that in him as a player," he said.
The Wallabies take on Fiji on Saturday September 21 at the Sapporo Dome, kicking off at 1:45pm local, 2:45pm AEST, LIVE on Foxtel and via RUGBY.com.au RADIO.