“It was good to get a fresh start. I got a feeling I wasn’t wanted by the Lions so going to Auckland where nobody knew me was a good way to regain my confidence and drive,” Salesi Rayasi reflects on his shift from Wellington to Auckland.
The former Upper Hutt Rams wing left the capital in 2017 and has since earned a place in the New Zealand Sevens team and is presently the second equal leading try scorer in the National Provincial Championship with nine forays over the whitewash.
When Auckland beat Wellington 29-24 earlier this month, Rayasi scored a try which tied the scores and he was instrumental in the visitors reversing a 10-24 deficit.
“I enjoy playing Wellington. I know a lot of the boys from my time there so it’s always a keen rivalry,” Rayasi enthuses.
That rivalry will intensify on Saturday when Auckland hosts Wellington in a Premiership semi-final at Eden Park.
What did Auckland learn about the Lions in the October 4 encounter?
“Wellington are a strong side with big forwards and backs that can finish. We struggled to get the ball for the first hour so we couldn’t play our game. We need to start better to avoid chasing the scoreboard,” Rayasi observes.
Conditions should be vastly different from those at the Westpac Stadium.
“The wind has a mind of its own. You go to clear the ball and it would blow back towards you,” Rayasi complains.
Rayasi isn’t complaining about Waisake Sotutu. The former Fijian international and Blues wing works for the Auckland Rugby Academy and has hosted Rayasi for the past two years.
“I moved in with Waisake and his family in Howick when I first arrived. I was supposed to find a flat, but that hasn’t happened and I’m grateful to still be there. It’s a full house, but I’m lucky to have Waisake as a mentor,” Rayasi acclaims.
Stability off the field has clearly helped the enigmatic Rayasi flourish. A prodigious natural talent, Raysai famously scored four tries for the St Patrick’s College, Silverstream First XV against eventual National top four Champions Scots College in 2014.
In 2015 he was a member of Canterbury's under-19 side that won the Jock Hobbs Memorial tournament, but his lack of consistency saw him benched.
In early 2016, Rayasi teamed up with Tall Black Dion Prewster in the hopes of forging a basketball career and winning a scholarship to a United States college. He travelled to ASB Sports Centre every morning for three months to train, before flagging that ambition to return to rugby where he scored 9 tries in 10 games for the Rams, earning a Lions debut against Waikato.
The lure of basketball was very tempting.
"Basketball is different to rugby in that you're constantly engaged with every play. Being a winger, it's pretty easy to lose focus and not be all that involved if the ball isn't coming your way," Rayasi explains.
Rayasi plays his club rugby for Marist who have failed to crack the top eight in Auckland in the past two seasons. Rayasi has been moved all over the backline.
“It’s been a blessing in disguise playing in different positions. It’s helped grow my decision making and work rate. I have learned with greater general knowledge to take greater responsibility,” Rayasi reflects.
Rayasi’s quick wit and wide grin makes him imminently likeable, but accountability for errors is high in the Auckland team this season. The return of Sir Graham Henry to the coaching staff has made a palpable difference. Auckland won three games in 2017 - this season they have won nine.
“There’s a time for joking around and being serious. I think we’ve got the balance right,” Rayasi says.
At the start of the season we were reminded about the rich history Auckland has and we talked about earning respect back. Ted has helped with his no bull approach. Winning cures everything.”
Rayasi has proven to be a genuine match winner. His two tries against North Harbour on Sunday were brilliantly taken as was his one-handed finish against Waikato and strike against Wellington. It was the ability to cross the paint that earned Rayasi a trip to the Hong Kong Sevens. However Super Rugby may beckon shortly.
“I’m just taking things one week at a time. I haven’t thought about my next move,” Rayasi responds when asked about a preference for sevens or Super Rugby.
Salesi is from a talented sporting family. His father Filipe played for Fiji while his younger brother Fritz was the leading try scorer for the St Patrick’s College, Silverstream First XV who won the Wellington Premiership this year.
He made his All Black Sevens debut earlier this year at the prestigious Hong Kong Sevens tournament, alongside former Upper Hutt Rams teammate Daniel Schrijvers.
Since 1883, Wellington have played Auckland 177 times with Auckland enjoying 94 wins and Wellington 79 with three contests shared. The biggest score Wellington has ever achieved against Auckland was 48 in the 2000 NPC semi-final. The Lions also won a semi-final against Auckland in 2006, but lost their most recent semi-final to Auckland 22-33 in 2012. Auckland beat Wellington in the 1999, 2003 and 2007 NPC finals.
The Auckland v Wellington semi-final kicks off at 5:05pm on Saturday afternoon.