Valentino Mapapalangi is a self-confessed ‘very happy’ man right now, after making the move to the East Midlands over the summer from Manawatu in New Zealand’s provincial rugby competition to work under head coach - and former Tonga mentor - Matt O’Connor.
Speaking with LeicesterTigers.com following the club’s Christmas Eve loss to Saracens, when the back-rower was crowned Lumbers Jewellers Player of the Month for November on-field at half-time, Mapapalangi spoke of his enjoyment at being part of the Tigers Family so soon after his move from the Southern Hemisphere.
Just four months into his Tigers career, the international joined esteemed company, including fellow Tongan Telusa Veainu, in being voted as the club’s best by supporters after a consistent run of strong performances in the Leicester forward pack.
“I am really, really enjoying myself here at the club,” Mapapalangi said with a smile, despite being among the many disappointed after a fifth straight defeat this season, when asked how it felt to be awarded the November crown.
“I'm very grateful to those who voted. I’m really happy here.”
It wasn’t a case of immediate success for the towering Tongan known as ‘Tino’ by team-mates, who had to fight his way into a three-man back row with the likes of Sione Kalamafoni, Mike Williams, Brendon O’Connor, Luke Hamilton, Will Evans and Dominic Ryan all vying for a place.
But, despite the competition, it’s those he has had to fight for a role in the side who have made the transition even easier.
“All of the players have made it a lot easier to settle in and allowed me to enjoy my footy,” Mapapalangi said.
Having worked with O’Connor in camp with Tonga before, he was aware of what was ahead for him and says the style of play under the Australian coach is part of what makes it easier to enjoy his rugby.
“The role I have within this team is my style of play and I am enjoying it a lot - it fits into my game,” he said.
“I like the way Matty is playing me. I’m out on the flanks and, while it is hard watching some of the other boys get into that harder work in the middle, patience pays off with their efforts and the ball gets out to me plenty to do my thing.”
One of those moments when it did pay off for both Mapapalangi and the Tigers was in his successful November period, when not only did he break into the starting side for the first time but also helped secure the club’s first four-try bonus-point in the 2017/18 Aviva Premiership season.
The ball moved to the right-hand side of the field quickly in the dying stages of the Welford Road fixture against Sale Sharks and, with little space and defenders closing in, the back-rower showed just why O’Connor has him playing ‘on the flanks’ as he attracted two defenders and released a right-arm to provide a one-handed flick pass for Nick Malouf, who forced his way over for the Tigers fourth of the match.
See the unbelievable finish from Mapapalangi and Malouf below on LTTV.
“I just tried something a bit different, got the ball to Maga, and I was pretty lucky to be able to pull it off and for us to get that bonus-point try,” he said.
With Ryan not far off a return to play from a three-month injury absence and new international Hamilton pressing for a starting spot after impressive showings from the bench, what now Mapapalangi in the second half of the season?
“I just want keep my consistency, work hard to keep that starting spot and play regularly in this team.”
It's a good headache it seems for O’Connor to have come selection time each week.