Prolific try scorers in one code always lead to expectations when they switch to the other. Think Jason Robinson or Chris Ashton, or going a few years further into the archives, John Bentley. While forwards or playmaking backs can find the transition from 15 to 13 and vice versa challenging to adjust to, the strike rate for the top wingers into being successful is a lot higher, with Robinson and Bentley both including British and Irish Lions caps in their cupboards and Ashton winning plenty of England caps, not to mention closing in on the all-time Premiership scoring record.

So when Bristol Bears announced the signing of Pte Ratu ‘Siva’ Naulago (Yorks) it is fair to say that the appetites of rugby supporters across the country were well and truly whetted, not just those within easy reach of Ashton Gate.

That is because Pte Naulago’s highlights reels from his time at Hull FC are nothing short of spectacular. Long-range tries, big hits and game-changing moments are all there in abundance, so it was not difficult to imagine the kind of impact he might have in a backline also containing the likes of Semi Radradra and Charles Piatau, both regarded as among the best in their positions anywhere in the world.

The eventual move from Humberside to Avon-side was delayed, not just by the Covid pandemic but by Hull’s run to the Super League semi-finals, where they were knocked out by Wigan Warriors.

But after a low key runout against Ealing Trailfinders for Bristol’s second team Pte Naulago was soon thrown in at the deep end, coming off the bench against European giants Clermont Auvergne before starting in the trip to Connacht, then the next three Premiership matches.

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With all four of those starts also coming out in wins, Bristol headed into the two-week break sitting pretty at the top of the table thanks to an eye-catching success away to Exeter Chiefs.

Pte Naulago is also off the mark with his new club, too, having scored the opener against Newcastle the week before, but for him the last eight weeks or so have been focused on getting settled into the new way of doing things.

“I’ve got focused into the new environment,” he says. “I like to learn new things every day and tackle challenges every day. I left what I did in Hull back in Hull, and came here to start from the bottom, viewing myself as one of the Academy players because I’m new to it. And hopefully I’ll get better by learning with them.

“To be honest I wasn’t expecting to be on the bench for the Clermont game. I was hoping for a couple of months build-up, but I got on the field and like I said I like to challenge myself. I knew I needed to impress the coaches, and hopefully put myself in the competition for selection.

“For me it’s not about my individual talent. I knew I needed to fit into the structure, and once you know that you can contribute. So scoring a try is not just about me, it’s about the whole team, and I was lucky enough to be in the position to score against Newcastle. I thought Sheedy was going to go all the way, but now I owe him a beer!”

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Playing against Europe’s finest was tough, but the trip to Connacht’s infamous Sportsground certainly left its mark, too!

“I’ve played on some tough pitches in rugby league, but Galway was different from them, especially with the weather! It was a good experience going out to Ireland. Some of our coaches started their rugby career there, so they had told us a bit of what to expect.”

Pte Naulago is one of a number of Islanders at Bristol, with the aforementioned Piatau and Radradra joined by Alapati Leiua, Steven Luatua, John Afoa and Nathan Hughes, to name a few more.

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At the top of the tree is Pat Lam, himself a legendary former Samoan international, and Pte Naulago says that the combination of culture and coaching has been important in helping attract him to the club.

“It’s massive,” he says. “The stuff that Pat does in Bristol, both off the field and on it, really inspires everyone. His development and coaching skills are different from any other coach I’ve worked with.

“When I first got here I read some of the history of the club, and I think it’s had the most Pacific Islanders, not just now but in the past as well. So I felt confident that I would feel at home here.

“Everyone seems to blend in as if we’ve known each other for ages, with the history of Islanders playing here. It’s something that Pat sees in us as well, not just in the club but to inspire the home-grown players coming through the Academy as well.”

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After five first team games and the friendly against Ealing came an unscheduled two-week break for the team as the Champions Cup fortnight was cancelled at late notice. But having come straight from Super League into club rugby’s top flight, Pte Naulago says that the time away from matches came at a good time.

“The two-week break has been really good for me,” he says. “Our head of performance told me before I arrived that he was going to need to have to re-condition me because of the long season in rugby league and then going straight into union. So it was a positive that there were no games in those two weeks because it gave me the time to re-condition.

“League has a higher intensity of running, and the conditioning of my body needed to adjust to a union environment, because there’s loads of space you have to cover in my position. I’ve managed to do that, but I had a few ups and downs in my body which I could feel, which is another reason why I was pulled out.

“But I’m feeling really good now, really positive, and my body is good to go again.”

He may be settling into professional rugby union, but Pte Naulago’s Army ties remain as strong as ever, not least because he and his wife, Rosie, are living in the barracks in Chepstow, the closest barracks with an Infantry regiment to Bristol. It is also an important reminder of where his longer-term career priorities lie, according to the 29-year-old.

Image © Alligin Photography, Scrumpix

“The support I’ve had from the Army has been massive, and I’d like to thank them for releasing me for the two years to play for Bristol. And on the welfare side they’ve always been there to support my family. The Army coaches have been on the phone to me regularly, as well.

“I’m happy to be living in Chepstow because I’ve got a few mates there, and it keeps me in the Army side of things as well. The Army is still an important priority for me and everything I do in this environment, both off the field and on the field, I’ve got to think that I’m not just a rugby player, I’m an Army representative, and wherever I go I’m representing the Army.”

Words © Chris Wearmouth

Image © Army v Navy Match

Image © Alligin Photography, Neil Kennedy

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