The big impact South African sides have made in the BKT United Rugby Championship has come as no surprise to Michael Ala’alatoa.
Leinster’s Samoan international prop knows their threat of old from his time playing Super Rugby with the Crusaders in New Zealand.
Now he’s up against them again, with the DHL Stormers - the reigning BKT URC champions - providing the opposition in a top-of-the-table clash at the RDS on Friday night.
“I have been fortunate to play against South African teams in the past in the southern hemisphere,” said the 31-year-old tighthead.
“So, for me, it’s not really any surprises as in how they play.
“They are very physical up front. They have big forward packs and back their set-piece, but, in saying that, they can play rugby as well.
“Having them on board has been a positive thing for rugby over here and for the BKT URC competition. It’s given it a bit more life and a bit more variety in terms of different types of rugby.
“You obviously have the Welsh, the Scottish, Italians and Irish as well. So to add the South African big bodies, with their pragmatic way of playing and some superstar athletes out wide, it’s a good mix of everything and a good challenge.
“It’s been good for the boys to have that experience. To have that regular exposure to South African rugby is the best way to prepare for Test rugby.”
Turning to this weekend’s showdown in Dublin, Ala’alatoa said: “You look at the table, it’s one v two and the DHL Stormers won the BKT URC last year as well.
“So we see this as being one of the biggest games of the season, especially for the group that we have.
“We have obviously got a few guys returning from international duty, but we’ve had a young squad with a lot of Academy players for the last few weeks and they have stepped up and done really well.
“It will be a huge test for those guys and for the whole squad. We are expecting the DHL Stormers to be very physical, while they have also got some really good athletes out wide.
“You saw what they can do last season, when they shocked the whole BKT URC competition by winning the title.
“So we have our work cut out this week, but we are confident in the work we have put in around what threats they will pose.”
With his father Vili having also been a Samoan Test prop and his younger brother Allan a Wallaby tighthead, rugby is very much in the blood for Ala’alatoa.
Born in Sydney, Australia, he graduated from club rugby in New South Wales to the Waratahs squad before moving to New Zealand where he caught the eye for Manawatu. That earned him a contract with the Crusaders, where he shared in a succession of Super Rugby title triumphs.
Then, in 2021, he joined Leinster and is now hoping to get his hands on more silverware. It’s certainly looking promising on that front, with the province unbeaten in both league and Europe this season.
They will now be reinforced by the return of players who have been involved in Ireland’s Grand Slams at both senior and U20s level amid sensational Six Nations success.
“I’m not Irish, I wasn’t born here, but it’s great to have a little part in what’s happening here at the moment,” said Ala’alatoa, who has won nine caps for Samoa.
“It’s definitely something the country can be proud of. It was great for Dublin as a city to be able to host the Grand Slam win on the weekend.
“You could see the people coming out on the streets and they were really proud of the effort that was put in.
“But it’s back to club rugby now and our focus is on this weekend against the Stormers.”