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Lealava’a reaches 150 games for Wainuiomata

Michael Lealava’a playing in his 150th match for Wainuiomata this past Saturday. Photo: T-Paul Gale. 

  • By Adam Julian

Michael Lealava’a was going to retire from rugby in 2023. With four children, diploma study, and his demanding job for Housing New Zealand in the “facility management space” another season was a big ask.

On Saturday Lealava’a played his 150th match for Wainuiomata against Marist St Pat’s. Including a stint at Petone, he sits on 236 premier appearances in Wellington.

“I started filling in for injury and managed to get a bit fit playing alright rugby. Our coach Dan Smith then looked at me and ‘You might as well play the whole season, your missus can hate me now and thank me later,’’ Lealava’a laughed.

The midfielder was soon installed as backs coach and has only missed a single game this season. Like Wainuiomata’s season, his 150th game was a roller coaster ride.

“I actually got sent off,” Lealava’a rued.

“It happened in the 60th minute. We were up 24-22 and playing well.

“I accidentally hit Logan Love in a high tackle but when the touchy came on I knew it could be more serious. Logan told me afterward he milked it, and I thought ‘You bugger’ I’d be lying if I hadn’t done the same thing at least once before.’

“Unfortunately, we conceded a penalty and a try and MSP won. They have an old-school team, not especially flash, but they know how to get things done.

“To be honest Saturday was just another game for me, but I did get emotional afterward when I saw the amazing support from my family and the community. That’s a big deal. It really is a village here. The past couple of years have hit us hard but I think we’re rebuilding in the right direction.”

Wainuiomata only had four women’s players to start 2023. On Saturday, combined with Hutt Old Boys Marist, they won the Izzy Ford Trophy. The Wainuiomata Premiers travelled to Trentham to support their team in the first half of their final before returning over the hill in time for kick-off.

“That was a risky thing to do but we’re all about the community here and it was good to show face. My sister and law is in the team. I’m stoked with their achievement,” Lealava’a said.

Wainuiomata has had many reasons to be stoked with Lealava’a over the years. In 2019 he was a pivotal member of the team that made the Jubilee Cup final and was narrowly beaten by Norths 16-25.

“We beat Hutt Old Boys to make the four and then Ories by one in the semi to make the final. Those games are the highlight of my time at Wainui.

“I remember the week of the final was so slow and then the game itself went by in a flash. We were gutted to lose to Norths, but they were worthy. I think the biggest lesson I learned from that occasion was not to overthink it and live more in the moment.”

Lealava’a playing in the 2019 Jubilee Cup final against Norths. Photo: Andy McArthur. 

The journey to proud husband, father, provider, and rugby player hasn’t always been straightforward for Lealava’a.

In 2005 at St Patrick’s College, Silverstream, Lealava’a was selected for the New Zealand Secondary Schools while in Year 12. He was in the same squad as future All Blacks captain Sam Whitelock.

“I missed the first day of a three-day camp because I was suspended from school,” Lealava’a rues.

“I was passing a rugby ball in class when the relief teacher walked in, and I hit him in the head. My attendance record wasn’t too flash either and I got suspended for a couple of days. I wasn’t the most popular player in the NZ Schools,” he continues.

Excluded from the New Zealand Schools the following year, Lealava’a was good enough to earn selection for the New Zealand Under-19 squad in 2006, but injury struck when he damaged a meniscus in his knee.

Lealava’a debuted for Wellington aged 21 and appeared on 10 occasions for the Lions, never quite cracking it at the top level. A broken arm and ongoing knee and shoulder issues were a hindrance, but with the benefit of hindsight what would Lealava’a tell any up-and-coming player in his position today?

“Stay out of trouble and hang out with the right crowd. I mixed with the wrong crowd and made some poor choices. You’ve got to rise above peer pressure and associate with like-minded people,” Lealava’a responded.

It’s 2007 and Wainuiomata are in disarray. The coaching staff departs mid-season – essentially leaving Wellington Academy members Lealava’a and Genesis Mamea in charge.

“Genesis and I were in the Academy and were learning some great stuff from Jamie Joseph, which we were taking back to Wainui. We managed to win the Hardham Cup, which was a great effort, but I still had a lot of learning to do and left at the end of the season,” Lealava’a recalls.

A Swindale Shield triumph at Petone in 2009 attracted interest from Tasman and Lealava’a worked with former All Black and Blues mentor Leon MacDonald for a brief period, managing 19 appearances on loan to Buller.

Lealava’a helped Wainuiomata make the Jubilee Cup in 2014 missing the decider due to injury. He was integral in the 2016 semi-final team and cracked the ton for the Green and Blacks in 2018. He has scored 45 tries for Wainuiomata.

Wainuiomata will contest the Hardham Cup in 2023. An opening round Swindale Shield win over Hutt Old Boys Marist has been offset by heavy losses to Tawa, Upper Hutt and Paremata-Plimmerton. A 59-26 slaying of Norths was an outstanding display by a team that has no Colts and has struggled for numbers.

Action during the premier rugby match between Tawa  v Wainuiomata, on 29 April 2023, at Lyndhurst Park, Tawa,Wellington, New Zealand. Final score 76-3 to Tawa.

Playing against Tawa earlier this season. Photo: Stewart Baird.

“I feel like 90 per cent of clubs have been rebuilding hence the change in results. It’s good for the competition the likes of Upper Hutt, Johnsonville and Paremata-Plimmerton are winning for a change. We’ll be back. Results can swing in roundabouts.

“I feel like Paremata-Plimmerton is the best side we’ve played. They’re well coached by coaches I’ve enjoyed working with and are really clinical with a good culture.”

Wainuiomata will likely appeal any possible suspension for the red card.

Lealava’a scoring in the 2016 Jubilee Cup semi-final against Tawa.

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