Casey Laulala loved life at Munster so much he admits he never wanted to leave.
The passionate supporters, a new style of rugby, and life in Cork all made the New Zealand centre’s two seasons with the Red Army among the best moments of a stellar career.
Laulala moved from Munster to French giants Racing 92 in 2014, with the Irish province saying at the time they were “unable to match” the offers the player had on the table in Europe.
The perception is Laulala headed for the Top 14 for one last payday, but opening up on his time in Ireland, he says his preferred option would have been to stay at Thomond Park.
“Ireland was amazing as well — it was great craic,” Laulala told the Irish Examiner in an exclusive interview.
“Cork was a great city and we enjoyed our time there. I wanted to stay on, but it didn’t work out and Paris ended up being amazing. It wasn’t a bad place to end up.
“I was really happy at Cardiff and wanted to stay, but we went through a tough patch financially there so most of us moved on. The same thing happened in Munster. My time was up and I had a good opportunity in Paris so I took it.
"It wasn’t my plan to keep on moving around, but it was just one of those things I couldn’t control. My wife wanted to live in France and it was an opportunity to do it.”
Laulala’s Munster arrival ahead of the 2012-13 season saw him become one of then-coach Rob Penney’s major signings. Looking back at the side at Penney’s disposal, at the time, it’s remarkable to think Munster failed to win any silverware in Laulala’s time in Ireland. He admits that is to be lamented, but there were still plenty of moments to be enjoyed on and off the field.
“I’ve said before, the thing that makes a team is the guys you play with. At Munster the following we had was just amazing,” Laulala said.
“Doug Howlett was there in the first year I got there. There was Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara — they were just great leaders for the region and great players too. They are Munster men through and through and the young players looked up to them and listened to every word they said.
"Week in, week out they showed them how it should be done and it was a real privilege to be a part of it. The people of Munster are definitely not shy — that’s for sure! It was a bit different there because you had the Limerick boys and the Cork boys. I spent most of my time with the Cork boys.
“I’d have liked to have spent more with the Limerick boys as well, but that’s just the way it was set up. The boys would get together in a group once a week to go out for dinner. That was pretty cool. At the end of every meal we’d play credit card roulette to see who was going to pay. The biggest one I remember was Peter Stringer — when he lost he was down about €300. He didn’t like that!
Donnacha Ryan, Peter O’Mahony and Dennis Hurley were all involved and it was great fun.
Born in Samoa, Laulala’s silky class in midfield saw him win three caps for New Zealand — the country where he grew up and represented the Crusaders.
He became a firm favourite at Cardiff Blues upon moving to the northern hemisphere and was similarly popular in Munster even though their greatest rivals Leinster claimed two league titles in his spell there.
There were also two Heineken Cup semi-final defeats before Laulala moved to Racing where he had more success. Retiring in the 2016-17, season he has since coached with Racing and Toulon and is now focusing on his restaurant and coffee businesses from his Paris home.
“The Heineken Cup was just like Test rugby because of the atmosphere the Munster fans created. I have great memories from there,” Laulala said.
“It was great to be a part of that club. In both of the years I was there, we were in the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup and both times we played away. The first one was in France against Clermont and then the next year we played Toulon in Marseille. We lost both.
"We had a great team, but we couldn’t quite get there in the end. I would have loved to have gone further. In the first game against Clermont we got off to a really bad start before coming back. We had an opportunity to win the game, but the poor start cost us.”
It is the ultimate irony that despite not wanting to leave Munster, Laulala has now set up home in Paris with his wife Lydia and three children.
He is fluent in French and remains open to a return to coaching once the coronavirus pandemic comes to an end. Whatever the future holds, he will always be remembered by Munster fans as a fine player even if his time there was brief.
“That’s the crazy thing — four years ago I wouldn’t have been able to say anything in French apart from ‘bonjour’. To be able to learn another language is such a great thing. I look back on all the things I’ve done with pride.
"My wife Lydia is a Kiwi girl. We married back in New Zealand, had our first daughter there, and our second was born in Ireland. My boy is a Parisian — he was born here. For now I’m happy in France. The plan for now is to push on with my business.”
Casey Laulala runs LeCase — an online coffee shop with a difference.
For more information go to https://lecaseparis.com