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Seniors must step up - Leo

THE town of Wainuiomata on the outskirts of Wellington, New Zealand, and the city of Essen in eastern Germany wouldn't share a natural link, it is perhaps fair to say.

In sporting terms, the cultures couldn't be more diverse.

But sport can often forge strong sporting links. And so it was that a little over three weeks ago Leinster Rugby were paid a surprise visit by none other than former Arsenal goalkeeper Jens Lehmann, who was in town to watch his country's World Cup qualifier against the Republic of Ireland in the Aviva Stadium.

For Leinster number eight Leo Auva'a, it was a step back in time. And the resonance of meeting a sporting legend triggered memories from his own schooldays. The Old Belvedere forward picks up the story.

"It was the Thursday before the Exeter game and we were training away in the gym, when this vaguely familiar guy walked in," Auva'a recalls with a smile.

"So I had a quick word with Dan Tobin -- our strength and conditioning coach -- who confirmed that it was Jens Lehmann, so I had to go over for a chat and a photo! It was great to meet him, he was a very nice guy and seemed really interested in rugby.

"Growing up I wasn't that big a football follower, but I've really gotten into it since I moved to Ireland and there's nothing I love more on my downtime than to switch on ESPN Classic and watch some old-school football.

"I'm more of a Manchester City fan, but I didn't tell him that! Coming from New Zealand, it's not every day when you get the chance to meet a football legend. It certainly took me back a few years."

And with that Auva'a pauses. He closes his eyes and he remembers being a boy surrounded by giants. Not that much has changed, you might say.

"I grew up in the town of Wainuiomata, which is a sleepy tight-knit community and a small town, around a half-hour drive from Wellington. Piri Weepu (All Black World Cup winning scrum-half) came from Wainuiomata and I grew up on the same street, around two doors down, in fact, as Tana Umaga (ex All Black captain).

"There was always a buzz when he came home to visit his family in later years.

"Rugby league was king growing up and it was only that I went to a school that played rugby union, otherwise I might never have played."

And it was in one of those experiences in his formative years which convinced him to stick with union. "I looked up to Michael Jones, who was one of the first Samoans to play and star for the All Blacks. Brian Lima was another hero of mine because he had featured for years and was such an exciting player to watch; smashing players, making tackles and scoring tries!

"One of the first matches I ever attended as a youngster was the New Zealand Universities against the touring Samoan national team. These were the times when the minute the whistle was over all of the kids would come roaring on to the field to meet the players and get autographs.

"That New Zealand side went on to produce a good few internationals and it's hard to describe the excitement you feel in moments like that.

"The wind was blowing a gale, the pitch was covered in muck up to your knees. But you didn't care. All you wanted to do was be close to your heroes.

"And it's funny even now looking at the way our supporters respond to the Leinster team and the lengths they go to support us. And that tight-knit family feel is really evident. I think it's a hugely important part of sport, to establish a connection with your people. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it's vital. We're incredibly lucky to have that following behind us."

Auva'a believes that the final test of this block of the campaign -- prior to the break for the November series -- on Sunday away to the Ospreys will be significant.

Not because of the quality of opposition, but because the squad will be tested to its limits because of the unavailability of players through a combination of injury and international commitments.

Now 28, the barnstorming back-rower is happy to embrace the added responsibility as a senior player in the panel.

"I don't shy away from responsibility and I think that it's important for the older players to step up on weeks like this when we're down numbers.

"There's a good environment here at Leinster where we're all learning off one another.

"We know that we haven't had a great record against the Ospreys recently and we're determined to fix that. And with the internationals away, it's a key time for us to make a big step up this week.

Determined

"For me, if I get the opportunity to play, I will be determined to take the chance. Being involved in the Heineken Cup squad (at home to the Exeter Chiefs) was a step up. My family back home stayed up half the night to watch the game and even they were stoked with the win! It gives you a real taste to play in more of these big games.

"You get such a buzz wearing the blue of Leinster. And the more big games that come along, the better."

Years may have passed, but the passion remains the same.


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