The giant that is Trevor Leota was back drop to Munster European epic to beat them all

The last time Munster went to Dublin for a European Cup semi-final, they ended up being flattened by the fattest figure in the game.
The giant that is Trevor Leota was back drop to Munster European epic to beat them all

Trevor Leota’s love of fast-food caused Wasps so much concern that they turned one of their coaches into a live-in minder with instructions to manage his diet during the fortnight before his club’s tie at Lansdowne Road on the last Sunday of April 2004.

The Samoan hooker’s weight had ballooned to more than 21 stone which, as overweight footballers of any code go, put him in the same ball-park as Wayne Shaw, the Sutton United reserve goalkeeper notorious for stuffing himself with a pie during their FA Cup tie against Arsenal in February.

Unlike Shaw, Leota would be required to do something rather more strenuous than sit on a bench.

If Wasps were to make their first European final, the game’s most rotund international would have to slug it out with the tightest tight-five in the tournament, Munster’s all-Ireland quintet of Marcus Horan, Frankie Sheahan, John Hayes, Donnacha O’Callaghan and Paul O’Connell.

Trevor Leota: Capable of putting on as much as 4kg — more than half a stone — in one day.
Trevor Leota: Capable of putting on as much as 4kg — more than half a stone — in one day.

Leota’s capacity for scoffing fried chicken and any other grub within smelling distance prompted Wasps’ emergency action.

The Polynesian pocket battleship needed a culinary refit if he was to be in any shape to fire his destructive short-range torpedoes at dangerous opponents on the verge of a third final in four years.

Warren Gatland, then in charge of the west London club, dispatched Paul Pridgeon, now the Wales fitness coach, to keep a 24/7 watch over Leota by moving into his house vacated at the time by his wife and children, back in Australia visiting relatives.

“We’ve got a minder with him round the clock,’’ Gatland, rebuilding his career in the English Premiership after his sacking by Ireland, said.

“He cooks his meals and makes sure he eats the right food. That’s how important Trevor is to us. He doesn’t tend to have normal days like the rest of us. It takes us 10 months to get him fit.

"At the right weight, I really think that on his day he’s the best hooker in the world. But he’s been known to sneak off to the nearest MacDonald’s and that’s our concern.

"We can’t afford to have him going up to 135kg (21 st 4lbs) again. If we win this competition, he can eat what he wants.”

A distant relative of the New Zealand boxer David Tua, once a contender for the world heavyweight title, Leota had been capable, according to Wasps, of putting on as much as 4kg — more than half a stone — in one day.

No taller than 5ft 9in and with a fighting weight of around 19 stone, Leota in peak condition fitted almost perfectly into the identi-kit of the square man.

Pridgeon’s presence was always going to have an impact of sorts but just how much, nobody could have imagined.

The match turned out to be surely the best European Cup tie of all time, unquestionably the best non-Test duel I have had the good fortune to see.

For once, one of the most overworked and misused words in the dictionary just about did it justice.

This really was the epic to beat them all, one that began ominously for the English challengers and Leota.

It took him a mere two minutes to be caught offside, close enough for Ronan O’Gara to nail the opening goal. And then the fireworks began.

Munster, 7-15 down at half-time, produced a response devastating even by their standards, an 18-point swing which had them steaming towards the final. With 15 minutes to go, they led 32-22.

Still, Wasps refused to give up, causing enough mayhem for Munster to be hit by two yellow cards from Welsh referee Nigel Williams which briefly reduced them to 13 men.

With O’Callaghan and Rob Henderson safely out of harm’s way in the sin-bin, Lawrence Dallaglio’s superior manpower ensured Munster paid for their indiscipline. Tom Voyce’s converted try made them all-square again, 32-32.

They were still all-square and a semi-final to match the sun blazing out of a cloudless Dublin sky had reached the sixth minute of injury time when Leota landed the knock-out blow.

He smashed his way over through a small shaft of space close to the touchline, so close that it required microscopic examination by the video referee to confirm the legality of the Leota exocet.

Even then, Munster had one last shot at making it 37-37 with a conversion to finish Wasps off without extra-time.

Christian Cullen made it possible, an electrifying break throwing Wasps into such disarray that only a Munster mistake could save them, like a knock-on. It duly came in the 10th minute of injury time.

The Wasps’ folk hero Leota had cooked the Irish goose and done for Munster what Colonel Sanders had done for Leota’s favourite chicken named after an American state made even more famous as Muhammad Ali’s birthplace.

Now 42 and back in Australia where he has been coaching the Footscray Bulldogs in Melbourne, Munster’s nemesis made the most of his Dublin triumph by ensuring Wasps went the distance in the ensuing final against Toulouse at Twickenham.

They not so much won the trophy against superior opponents as stole it, thanks to Clement Poitrenaud dithering as he waited for a Wasps punt to bounce in-goal.

While Rob Howley’s acrobatics ensured the France full-back paid an exorbitant price, Wasps know they would never have made it that far without the try of Leota’s life.

As Shaun Edwards, then learning his trade as Wasps’ defence coach, said before leaving Lansdowne Road: “’You wouldn’t want to wipe that off your video, would you?

“That’s probably the best game of rugby I have ever seen…’’

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