No Roman holiday for Blue Hawaiian

Solanoa doesn't want to be known as an American footballer playing rugby

HARD YARDS: Roman Salanoa making his debut for Leinster in the interprovincial clash against Ulster before Christmas at the RDS. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Des Berry

Last month, Roman Salanoa woke up on a Saturday morning to find out that Utah University had been devoured by Oregon thousands of miles away in the Pac-12 Championship match in Santa Clara, California.

He felt for his cousins Bradlee Anae and Mika Tafua, Utah's star defensive ends as their dreams of making the last four of the College Football Championship play-offs for the first time evaporated in advance of their plans to make it all the way to the National Football League (NFL).

There was a time when that would have been Salanoa's preferred option, playing as a defensive end for Kahuku High School's 'Red Raiders' on Oahu, one of the satellite islands in Hawaii, home to the state capital Honolulu.

In fact, Salanoa took the road never traveled to make his Leinster debut as a 56th minute replacement for Andrew Porter in the Interprovincial derby against Ulster at The RDS just before Christmas, adding a second in a 16-minute impact against Connacht last Saturday.

Rewinding the clock, the Hawaiian was a running back or tight-end in school, managing to load on an incredible 70 pounds in three months as a 16-year-old, rocketing from 230lbs to 300lbs when switching positions, the Samoan genes kicking into action.


"I enjoyed putting on the weight, eating anything you can get your hands on, starting with leftovers from the previous night, a lot of heavy meals, something like meatloaf or spaghetti for breakfast," said the Leinster Academy tight-head prop.

"You start there and keep going through the day. The trick was to wait until the end of the queue for lunch in the school cafeteria and kiss up to the lunch ladies for those extra scoops of food. You return home to a huge dinner from your mother and start again the next day. You are just constantly eating."

Then, there was a 45-minute weight-lifting class, part of the in-school curriculum at Kahuku, before another session after school in tandem with playing the game.

The school has provided 17 players to the NFL since 1970 and a multiple of that to elite Division 1 College Football programmes.

"I started to get interest from schools in the University of Hawaii and schools in America, Colorado University, Oregon State. But, that wasn't the best option for me," he said.

"I was looking more towards the 'Juco' (Junior College) route, made famous by the Netflix series 'Last Chance U.' I applied to Snow College in Ephraim, somewhere in the mountains in Utah, as an intermediate step to a Division 1 college."

There is a well-defined pathway from Hawaii to the state of Utah, Salanoa staying at Snow College for two months playing defensive end, or nose tackle, before losing his motivation and interest far from home.

"At the end of my sixth year, I was introduced to rugby by our high school rugby coach Séamus Fitzgerald," he said.

He took to the sport and was spotted by United States U20 coach JD Stephenson at the Pacific Cup, a tournament for top High Schools in San Diego. He was invited into camp and survived the various cuts to make the United States team for the Junior World Trophy in 2016.

It was around this time that former Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan and Wesley Liddy came into the picture in an experimental project to examine the potential to turn American footballers into rugby players.

"In America, you don't have an equivalent to the AIL. If you don't move on to college football, you are done. The idea was that if these guys are there physically, they can learn rugby and excel.

"My coach Séamus sent over my athletic profile and a few clips of me playing. At some point, I got an email from Eddie confirming they wanted to go ahead with it. I was in shock. It was too good to be true.


"As the time came closer to fly to Ireland, I started to get scared. I had to look up the country on Google to see where it was on the map."

The European powerhouse was not exactly on Salanoa's radar before arriving into the teeth of the rain and wind in the winter of 2016.

He had never heard of Leinster; never even heard of any Irish rugby player.

"You see the highlights, the steps, the big hits. You piece it all together from researching the club, recognising the jersey, finding out the big names," he said.

Salanoa returned home for the guts of six months. Uncertain about the timeframe, he found work as a supervisor at the Polynesian Cultural Centre.

"I just got a taste of it. I enjoyed it. It lit a fire inside me," he said about the trial.

"The months went by and, in my head, I wasn't too sure, you know, was this a dying fire?"

He needn't have worried, receiving and accepting an offer to join the Leinster Sub-Academy in 2017 for two years before entering into Year 1 of the Academy last July.

"What made it hard was I had to start when everyone else was moving at 100 miles-an-hour. It is not like starting when you are a child and you see how the game develops. There was no going back to the start.

"I was just an athlete. It was jumping into a new sport and that wasn't easy. It would be like throwing a rugby player straight into American football.

"You start questioning everything. You have to do your homework, do a lot of one-on-one sessions with Dave Fagan, Simon Broughton, Trevor Hogan, Séamus Twomey the scrum coach as well as be guided by some of the players in the Sub-Academy Jordan Duggan, Cormac Daly, Conor Dean and Charlie Ryan."

The All-Ireland League has been his place to learn the game at an accelerated pace. This season, there were four Leinster 'A' caps in the Celtic Cup, one from the start, as Salanoa showed signs of progress.

"That was a lot faster. You get exposed for a lot more flaws. For every error, there is a consequence.

"In the AIL, if you make an error, shoot out of the line, leave a gap, there is more time for you to recover."

More recently, Salanoa found out all about the increased tempo involved in those Interprovincial derbies, searching for his second wind against Ulster and Connacht, perhaps playing a part in recent speculation linking the prop to the western province.

"I am learning all the time. I just don't want people to think of me as an American football player, playing rugby.

"I just want to be a rugby player."