Fijian quick to make a splash after being thrown in at deep end
Champions Cup try against Wasps just a glimpse of what's to come from back-row
When Naulia Dawai arrived in Galway, the imposing 6ft, 17 stone Fijian was always set to create a few ripples for Connacht, but he never realised it would come so soon.
The 29-year-old back-row was a 74th-minute replacement for Nepia Fox-Matamua as desperation grew in the Sportsground, and Connacht's dreams of a Champions Cup quarter-final seeped away against Wasps on December 17.
But as is to be expected with Connacht, drama unfolded: it was a sensational ending and it all culminated with the six-time capped international barging his way across the whitewash for the equalising score.
Dawai's last-gasp try provided the epic finale and Jack Carty converted from the sideline as a dream debut came true for Connacht's latest import.
"It was an awesome experience, the first thing I noticed was the crowd. The crowd was awesome," recalls Dawai.
"When we had a penalty and we kicked for goal everyone was so quiet and I have never experienced that. And then when we scored that last conversion the crowd erupted and it was surreal.
"That was awesome, it was more of a team try and I was just lucky to be at the back of the maul. Going into to that game my main focus was just to know my roles and execute them. Going in with less than five minutes to play and that lineout, the whole move was running in my head.
"When we finally got the maul going, I was in the front and somehow I came off and joined back in. Bundee (Aki) passed me the ball and I couldn't believe it when I went past the try-line."
But it hasn't been all plain sailing for Dawai since he joined, and following on from the brilliant 20-18 success at home to Wasps, the reigning Pro12 champions lost against Ulster, Munster and Ospreys in the league. And they cruelly bowed out of the Champions Cup away to four-time winners Toulouse.
Yet Dawai is still in awe of his surrounds, and takes every day as it comes in his new life in the Northern Hemisphere - he arrived in Galway last November, not knowing what to expect.
"To be honest I didn't know much about Connacht before I got here," he says. "Our coach for Otago was here, Cory Brown so he told me about Connacht. It is similar to Otago, a university city, everything pretty central, just a lot colder and wet, but it's been good."
But outside of having to adjust to the different climate, on the field European rugby has provided its own stumbling blocks.
A much more pack-driven game leaves many players from the south on the back foot from the off, but Connacht's game-plan was a saving grace for Dawai.
Coming from Fiji, heads-up rugby is Dawai's preferred choice of attack, and that suits Pat Lam's mindset perfectly. The No 8 thrives on the huge collisions but his great hands will make him an asset to Connacht in the long-term.
"It's a bit different, maybe forward orientated," he explains. "We like to play with the ball down in the Southern Hemisphere, in New Zealand - I don't know much about the other places.
"But I am enjoying the style of rugby that Connacht play. It's similar to back home, there's just a lot more detail now and a lot more stuff to know. I have been thrown in at the deep end but I have come around to it.
"I have still got a lot to learn, and still getting used to all of the roles, I have been playing all around six, seven and eight but I am enjoying it. The boys are good, they have been very helpful."
The former Marist Brothers High School student is originally from Nadi in Fiji and began playing rugby via the typical Sevens route at a young age.
"I started when I was just really young. I just came through the school grades, went provincial back home and then went to New Zealand," he recalls.
"I went to New Zealand in 2011, I was down in Southland for three years, and in 2014 I went up to Otago and I have been with them for 2014 and the season last year.
"I played a couple of development games for the Super Rugby side last year but that was it."
Dawai began to flourish for Southland, but it was with Otago where he made his name as a prolific rampaging back-row and in September 2015, he became just the fourth player in NPC history to score three tries at Eden Park, against Auckland in the ITM Cup.
He never made the grade at Super Rugby level but he was still noticed by John McKee and finally made his debut for the Fiji against Tonga in June of last year. Prior to his move to Galway, Dawai had a taste of Ireland in a white shirt.
"It's actually my second time in Ireland. My first time was in November just before I came here. I went to Belfast with the Fiji team on a European tour," he says.
"We just went from Belfast, to England and from England to France and France back here. I had already signed. So straight after the European tour I came here.
"But it was a dream come true when I made my debut last year in the June Test, and to be able to play in front of my home crowd with my family watching.
"I had been playing a lot of my rugby in New Zealand and to be fair I didn't think I was going to make Fiji. There are so many really good flankers, bigger, taller.
"To get the call-up, I came in as a replacement for one of the injured boys and to get three starts for them it was just amazing."