We’re into December, the run of cup games has passed the halfway point, the autumn internationals are over and the stands are getting a bit chilly. As a winter warmer Matt Merritt caught up with Wallabies hooker, tough tackler and all around nice guy Saia Fainga’a to see how he’s finding this season compared to the last!
So let’s start with the Championship Cup as we’re in the midst of it at the moment. How are you finding this competition?
It’s a bit like Groundhog Day, we play Bedford at home one week and the next week we’re playing them again but away. I think it’s making us better players, our skills are getting better, we’re executing a lot better and as a team we’re definitely going to reap the rewards if we go up into the Premiership.
For us it’s really about making sure we get that finer detail and we execute really well.
Do you find that ‘Groundhog Day’ aspect of playing teams more than once in a short span of time helps you resolve things that are picked up in analysis after the game?
It gives guys opportunities. It gives the coaches a chance to see other players play. It’s a whole squad and it means you can get a look at things, see the way they are trying to play. You don’t change too much in the week but there are personnel changes. We obviously changed the team against Bedford between the first and second week, there was a whole front row change, new second row… we brought in a lot of players. For us it’s all about making sure guys are getting game time and we have that versatility so if there are any injuries we can rely on the guys coming through. I think that’s the biggest thing we’re doing, building a squad mentality in the competition that brings out the best in our players!
As you say there are a lot of opportunities for rotation in this competition, so you’ll have packed down alongside different guys over the season. Do you find your game changes a little depending on who is alongside you?
To be honest, as a hooker if you’re throwing straight in the line out and the scrum is going forward you’re halfway there! You just make sure you’re diligent with your loosehead and tighthead, make sure they’re doing their job at scrum time. With the props we have, if they’re not internationals they have experience in the Premiership, so I think we’re in pretty good stead with them doing their own roles.
That’s something we’ve focused on, guys focusing on doing their own roles and not worrying about the other stuff. If you get your own job right it makes everyone else’s role easier.
With the depth of squad we have and the number of games this year it seems a lot of the team have had opportunities to get away for a few days and have a break from rugby. Do you think that’s helping the players?
Well I haven’t actually had a break since the start of the season!
Obviously a lot of the players have had a week off, the international players have had a break when they’ve returned. I think it’s been key to our rotation, with the depth of our squad we can give these guys the opportunity for a week off. In past years I think guys have had to train through.
I think that’s a credit to the coaching staff. When guys have breaks you see the academy lads step up and when the guy returns he has to up his game so it’s a chain reaction. A good example is Ben Loader who has come on in leaps and bounds from the start of the year, playing for England under 20s and maybe not being un known to now being a starter. That’s a credit to him but also to the coaching staff for bringing him in and giving the opportunity, and he took it!
A great example of that was in your own position as Ben Atkins had to step in early in the season which must have been huge for a lad of his age!
Yeah, I suppose I didn’t even think about Benny! I remember when I first came through at 18 for the Brumbies, there was nothing worse than playing in front of thousands of people – more I suppose as it was a TV game – so I think he did exceptionally well. It’s a good example of getting an opportunity and taking it, he’s got a lot to learn but I think he’ll be a great player one day!
Do you feel like the team has changed or progressed since you joined us last season? How different is it working with the current coaching team?
I’m not sure what it was like the last time Irish were in the Championship but last year, when we weren’t having successes in games but we were close, 2 or 3 points off and still getting bonus points… we weren’t happy with the results but we didn’t really take it as a loss, we were kinda like “let’s buckle down and get back to it next week”.
This year even if we win by 30 or 40 and we don’t play well we still go to the board and it’s as bad as losing, we’re so critical with each other to make sure we pick up on the finer details. Some of that stuff we skipped last year because we didn’t want to hurt guys feelings but this year we are making leaps and bounds in standing up and being accountable for your actions, your mistakes or lapses.
It’s making us a better team and we’re putting opposition to the sword. That’s why we’re getting good results and getting better every week.
I’d like if I may to look back now to when you first joined us last year. You moved over to a new country to play for a new team, but as I understand it this was also your first time playing rugby without your brother Anthony in the team. How did you adjust to that?
Yeah, I’d played with my twin brother my whole career, literally 30 years, so it was a big decision moving here and it was tough!
It’s not something I’ve really been asked about and some people won’t realise I have a twin… We played all our internationals together, we were in the same squads for the Reds, the Brumbies and the Wallabies together.
To be a year away from him and to be injured was tough. Having your worst critic but your best friend, your motivator right with you and keeping you accountable.
I came here injured and I was down. I tried to play and had one step forward and ten steps backward. The medical staff were great but I couldn’t tick the boxes. This year I’ve had back to back games and started to get some good game time.
I talk to my twin every day, either text or call, so we do talk a lot. Some people think that’s weird but we do. I bounce ideas off him… we’ve had a bond forever. We made a big decision when we were young to always stick together but now in the later stages, 31 going on 32, he made the decision to go to Japan and I came here. It was more of a family decision.
I definitely think I made the right decision but it was hard. I never thought I’d play without him, mind you I’d like to see him at Irish, I think he’d be a good asset. I might go speak to Dec about getting him in here…
He’s one of the best tacklers – I think – in the world and he does everything well. He was a big loss for me last year and I really missed him for the first 6 to 8 months I was at Irish and being injured as well it was detrimental not having someone to talk to or to have my back. Even though my wife and kids are here, not many people realise it’s tough getting up and getting beaten up every day, getting on the Watt bike and running laps around the field knowing you’ve got to pack a hundred scrums and a thousand kilos through your back. You’re sore, you’re tired and they are the times you need someone there who has your back and he was always there.
For me it’s one of the biggest changes in my life!
It takes time to build a bond with the squad I guess and we can forget as fans that you guys have a life off the field.
Oh yeah, I love the boys here, they’re great but my brother has been there all my life. We know when the other is training well, when they’re being lazy or not putting 100% in and that’s what we pride ourselves on.
When you lose your other half…. We lived together until we were 27 years old and our wives were saying we had to move out and we were like “let’s just stay here together”, we just wanted to hang out.
It was funny, we lived in a 3 story house and if we heard the door slam in the morning it would be Anthony, or he’d hear me and be like “yeah, I’m coming. See you in the car” and we’d go off and do extras. When that door slammed it was the signal we would go do extras and really push each other. I think that’s why we played so many Super Rugby games and turned out for the Wallabies, why we were so successful!
It must be nice to have had some opportunities to see your other brother play this year as he’s at Connacht now.
That’s my younger brother Colby, yeah! I went and saw him play against Ospreys and I’ve been over to Galway too. It’s a lovely place over there. He’s playing really well and thoroughly enjoying it.
So we just need to get you all in really, just have a team full of Fainga’as!
It would be quite funny to have us all here. Triple trouble!
Not long after you joined us I heard from one of the backroom team at the club that on your first day you made a point of not only meeting your teammates but also introducing yourself to everyone else at Hazelwood. Is it important to think beyond just the team on the pitch and consider the club as a whole?
I pride myself on making sure I say hello to everyone, getting around the club because at the end of the day the place doesn’t work without the people who get you out on the food.
Brian our physio, the medical staff, the doctors and the kitchen staff… We don’t get our nutrition, or our weights in or anything without them.
I’m a big believer that you treat people the way you want to be treated and whether that’s an academy kid or the owner of the club if you treat people with respect you deserve to be treated with respect. That’s how I live my life and for anyone who knows me I’ll always stop and say hello or spend some time. 5 minutes out of my life isn’t a lot but it might mean a lot to a 15 year old kid practicing line outs, I’m just a big believer in the whole respect thing!
We started these interviews to celebrate 20 years of the supporters club so before I let you go is there anything you’d like to say to the fans?
For me personally coming in as a new player and not really playing, getting game time this year and hopefully getting promoted the one thing I can see is just keep backing us, keeping supporting, keep coming to games and we will keep playing for you guys!
We might not have 30,00 supporters but the ones we have are the most driven, honest and respectful people. I see our fans going to Hartpury, I see them at Bedford and it’s great to see them there.
If I don’t say hello at a game make sure you come over to say hi because I’ll definitely spend some time , I can’t thank you enough because without you guys supporting us through think and thin it’s tough running out there each week!
This year coming into some places… these grounds I didn’t think I’d ever play in, these guys keep rocking up and showing their faces, at jersey they all got on the plane and they’re there win or loss!
Our thanks to Saia for giving up his time and to the club for their ongoing support!