'It's all about the team': Salakaia-Loto open to tight-five move if it will help Reds

Super Rugby
by Emma Greenwood

Lukhan Salakaia-Loto has revealed he's willing to move back into the tight five if it's the best way to accommodate the Reds' rising stars.

The Wallabies backrower said while he was most comfortable at six and believed it was the best fit for his skillset, the depth in the Reds' loose forwards meant he may have to adopt a utility role in Super Rugby.

And if it will help Queensland return to the finals for the first time in seven years, he's willing to do it.

Salakaia-Loto started at lock in the Reds' trial against the Rebels in Gladstone on Friday, with Angus Scott-Young wearing the no.6 jersey and Junior Wallabies star Harry Wilson pushing his way into the starting side at no.8.

Wilson's rise, along with that of Junior Wallabies captain Fraser McReight, is set to cause headaches for Reds coach Brad Thorn this season.

Wilson, who won the NRC Rising Star award in 2019, was solid without being spectacular against a fringe Rebels side in a match the Reds forwards dominated.

McReight was not considered for the match following off-season surgery on his hip, followed by a thumb injury.

But he played three Super Rugby games from the bench last year before heading to Argentina to lead the Junior Wallabies' charge to the World Rugby U20 final and is expected to add to that tally in 2020.

Injuries to locks Izack Rodda (off-season ankle surgery) and Harry Hockings (hand) had as much as anything to do with Salakaia-Loto's switch on Friday and could cause him to start the season there.

But it could also be a longer-term option if the young guns maintain their current rate of improvement.

"You've got to be happy for your teammates doing well," Salakaia-Loto said of the young guns forcing a potential switch.

"At the end of the day, we're all part of the same team. (Whatever the line-up is) it's going to be what's best for the team."

While he came through as a lock, Salakaia-Loto always felt he was different and said the opportunity to transition to the back row in 2017 was freeing.

"I think here at the Reds I've got a bit of a utility role where I can switch - depending on the position or depending on the coach's preference," he said.

"Personally, I do prefer six. When I first played in 2017 in Argentina, I was a long way from where I am now and I've still got a long way to go.

"I always saw myself as a bit different to the other locks we had coming through, a bit more attacking.

"When I first came, I wasn't as good as guys like (Rob) Simmons and Dougie (Kane Douglas), I feel my point of difference was to be a bit looser, a bit more attacking.

"So I think that's when the coaches saw there was an opportunity for me to play six and once they said that, I lit up because it probably suits me more.

"I am working really hard with guys like Liam Wright to add to my game in terms of the breakdown to get a bit more of an understanding because that's pretty much it now days, everyone from one to 15 can have an effect on that and if I can add that to my game, we'll only benefit."

Wilson is the player making waves, pushing for a starting spot with the Reds in round one against the Brumbies at no.8, with Thorn facing a tough decision over whether to shuffle his pack or bring Wilson or the experienced Angus Scott-Young off the bench.

Salakaia-Loto is backing the youngsters to bring the goods.

"When we were coming through, there were thoughts that maybe one day we could push for higher honours and it's no different for Wilso (Wilson) and Fraser (McReight) especially," he said.

"They're still coming through. Fraser just captained the U20s and Wilso having the year he had last year (with the Junior Wallabies and as the NRC's Rising Star winner), they're both unreal players.

"And you should see the stuff they produce (at training) at Ballymore, it's crazy. I really rate Wilso, I really think one day he's going to represent Australia and the same for Fraser.

"So to have those guys in your squad, whether they be starting - which, you know, wouldn't surprise me if they were - or coming off the bench and in your squad, just having them in the back pocket, it's really good for us.

"For the past five or six years, since I've been here, the crop of players we've got coming through the 20s system is crazy."

If Wilson and McReight are to make the transition to the next level, it's likely to be with the assistance of Salakaia-Loto, who has become the consummate professional.

The 23-year-old returned weeks early from his post-World Cup break - in part to combat boredom and retain fitness - but also to ensure he had all the information needed going forward, not only to help himself but make sure he could be a leader for others.

"I didn't want to come back and have a few days to try and jam all the information in," he said.

"So I came back, sat down with a few of the coaches, got that info and had a few weeks to try and test it out prior to Christmas and then at least when I came back early in the New Year I was familiar with all the stuff and it wasn't too much learning.

"We've got a young group - but we're (the Wallabies guys) not much older, we're just a bit more experienced.

"If we're rolling in and not ready and not across the stuff that can rub off to a lot of the younger players when they look up to us for a bit of help. So that was a bit part of the reason."

Salakaia-Loto, who started every one of Australia's Rugby Championship games before the Wallabies opted to revert to a "Pooper" flank combination at the World Cup, said bowing out in the quarter-finals in Japan was disappointing.

"It's always disappointing but it's all done now so you can't go back and change things," he said.


"But in terms of development, I felt I grew as a player. There's still things you can work on and there's till things I'm working really hard on."

It's a more mature approach from Salakaia-Loto, who has sometimes let his headstrong nature get in the way of receiving constructive feedback.

"I've always enjoyed advice, though for me, I can be a bit headstrong - but you've got to be sometimes," he said.

"For me, it was a bit more who it was coming from and how it was getting delivered. But you grow older, you get wiser. I'm not afraid to speak my mind but in that sense I've in some way matured.

"It's only for the better, everyone goes through those stages and you've got to be open to feedback. Not to say that I wasn't open to criticism, because I've always loved criticism. It's just how it was coming - you were sort of getting told something but there was no real explanation.

"As a player, especially a young player, you want things to be explained."

Salakaia-Loto, who has signed with the Reds through to 2022, wants to help that message get through to younger members of the squad.

 

"We transition back from the Wallabies to the Reds as leaders. You see guys like (Izack) Rodda, Taniela (Tupou), Wrongers (Liam Wright), our captain, we're still so young ourselves but we thrive in the Wallaby environment where we really love to learn and develop.

"But when we come back here we have a lot more responsibility."

Experiencing his first World Cup and realising how big the tournament is has made Salakaia-Loto want to be there again in 2023 at the peak of his powers.

"I think as the years have flown by I've been more open to feedback and how to get better," he said.

"And I think this year I've come back as a better person, just (ready to) spend more time with coaches, spend more time on my craft - which I'd already done - but I just want to get those one percenters right.

"Being at a World Cup, it's kind of motivated me to stick around and be in the term going forward, so that's added a bit of motivation because I know what that feels like now - the feeling's second to none in rugby."