Paul Lasike – Back in Utah
Written by Joe Harvey
On February 22, the Utah Warriors announced that Paul Lasike was coming back to Zions Bank Stadium.
Back in 2018, Lasike starred for the team in the inaugural season of Major League Rugby, having only returned to rugby after stints in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals and Chicago Bears.
Scoring a try on his USA Eagles debut against Chile, two months later Lasike captained the Warriors in the 2018 MLR season, the team making the playoffs that season.
The center’s efforts four years ago awarded him an opportunity with Harlequins in the English Premiership where over the last three and a half years, Lasike has been playing in one of the premier clubs in Europe, a side that won the Premiership last season in impressive fashion.
Recently having recovered from a torn Achilles that he sustained in training, Lasike is fighting fit once more after a brief loan spell with London Scottish in the RFU Championship prior to coming back to Utah, where he attended college, launched his rugby career and lent himself the Warriors’ title challenge.
𝐆𝐮𝐞𝐬𝐬 𝐖𝐡𝐨’𝐬 𝐁𝐚𝐜𝐤
Welcome back to Utah, Paul Lasike.#ForTheNation
— Utah Warriors Rugby (@utwarriorsrugby) February 22, 2022
THE ROAD TO HOME
How Lasike made his way back to America largely had to do with timing. His wife, Ani, became pregnant with twins and returned to her hometown of Sacramento, California.
As a result, the 31-year-old was living in London by himself, waiting for his contract with Harlequins to come to a close at the end of June.
But while the center was thinking of moving on, the conversation of bringing the player back to where his professional rugby career began was instigated by the Warriors.
“I would love to tell you it was a stroke of GM brilliance,” Brandon Sparks laughed. “We were looking for an additional center, I just happened to be in the room with our CEO, Kimball Kjar, and I said, ‘would you mind reaching out to Paul?’.
“Sometimes it is just better to ask and get an answer, rather than wondering what could have been, and that was definitely the case with Paul. He just happened to say that he would love to come home, his wife is pregnant, and they were thinking the time was right to move on.”
Arriving back in Utah this Monday, Lasike has embedded himself amongst the squad as quickly as he could.
The team is coming off the back of a 27-24 home loss at the hands of the Toronto Arrows, the Canadian side having trailed 10-7 at the break as a result of a converted Mikey Te’o try and Cliven Loubser penalty.
Having been away for an extended period of time, Lasike says that plenty has changed with the Warriors, his motivations coming as a result of a second chance with the team that launched his career and to keep playing rugby at the elite level.
“It is funny looking back at 2018 and how far we have come these last five years,” Lasike said.
“We were training, playing and doing our gym sessions all in different locations in my first year. We would train in one place, then do a weights session somewhere else and then we would play at Zions Bank.
“The fact that everything is in one place speaks a lot to the growth that the organization has been doing, so it has been cool to see that.
“I have some roots here. I have friends, I have an auntie out here. It is more than just rugby. I love Utah as well, it is a beautiful state, I did all of my university here as well. It was kind of a no brainer for me to be honest.
“It was either Utah or I was probably going to hang it up to be honest, so I am quite stoked.”
“When I first met him, my first reaction was ‘this man is born to play professional sports’,” Shaun Davies, Utah Warriors assistant coach, said. “At 18, he was athletically gifted in ways I had not seen before.
“Paulie has always been a man on the field that looks like he is aggressive and loves the contact. Off the field, he is the musician, he is the most chilled man, your typical kiwi that just wants to relax, and hang out with the boys.
“He is fantastic, and really good for culture. He is the kind of guy that will run you over and then help you up and give a nice little high five.”
When Lasike first arrived in Utah, it was as an exchange student. Coming to the state as an exchange student, the Auckland-born Eagle played for Highland, where he won a national championship, his efforts on the rugby field leading to a scholarship from Brigham Young University.
It was there that former BYU and USA scrum-half Shaun Davies first came across the center, whose rugby education up to that point had seen him play in the Waikato academy and in a New Zealand U17 training camp.
There would be a twist in fate, however, where after a two-year mission in Birmingham, Alabama, Lasike was offered a trial with BYU’s football team, earning himself a spot on the roster as a running back.
Soon the NFL would follow, and now after even more experience in professional sport, it is hoped that the 31-year-old will lend himself well to the continuing development of the Warriors off the field.
“From his experience overseas, he is going to bring a certain level of professionalism,” Sparks said. “He was in the NFL, and to be in his late 20s and be noticed by a Harlequins and for them to take a chance on bringing him over to the Premiership, that speaks to his professionalism and his professional readiness.
“We switched to a daytime operating environment this year, and I think because of that we lost some leaders in that transition, and we could have done better during that transition to make sure we had more professional players to support the younger roster.
“Now we have Paul alongside those younger athletes, who is going to be a good role model and will allow them to prepare themselves and extend their careers by changing habits.”
For much of his adult life, Lasike will offer plenty to Utah. His professionalism is part of what lent itself to his early successes four years ago, the understanding of what it takes to be a professional athlete giving him a boost.
This could be seen upon his return to rugby, where within four months of his return to the sport, Lasike was starting alongside Bryce Campbell in the midfield as the Eagles stunned Scotland in Houston, winning 30-29 by the final whistle.
That performance, along with his efforts in MLR resulted in a move to London and the English top flight where he added to his experiences further, watching on as his teammates won the Premiership last summer whilst he recovered from an Achilles injury.
“In 2018, when I was playing with Utah, that was my first time in professional rugby after coming back from American football,” Lasike said.
“I started my professional rugby career really late, I started it at 27, so to go over to England and learn from superstars like Danny Care, Chris Robshaw and Joe Marler, it has been awesome to develop my game over there, so hopefully I will be able to come and impart some of my experiences.
“I am hoping to add to what they have here. Harlequins have won the Premiership last season, and they are on to win it again this season, so it has been so cool to be around a winning culture and environment.
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“I am sure I will sit down with Coach Pittman and Shauny, have a coffee with them and share the things I saw there. You see them winning, but there is a lot of things behind the scenes that go along with that.
“Like how they treat players, treat their bodies, so hopefully I can share that with the boys and add to the professionalism. MLR is still growing, so hopefully I can help in any way I can in the environment.
“I want to help, be vocal, bringing up options and opinions and stuff like that so we can succeed.”
UTAH UP TO NOW
After last weekend’s defeat, Utah slipped to a 2-4 record and sixth-place in the West Conference. Having made the Western Conference Final in 2021, it has been a difficult start to the new season for an extremely talented side.
Preparing to play the Houston SaberCats this Saturday, Davies says that the playing group are going to have to dig deep in order to turn the tide.
“The first three games were always going to be difficult,” Davies said. “We were playing three of the top teams away, without a preseason, so we were always a little bit undercooked, and we finally managed to turn it around against Dallas.
“We put on a bit of a show, then we went to LA and played some of the best rugby we have ever played. All the momentum was there coming into the Toronto game, and to be quite frank, we weren’t good enough.
“Myself, Pitts [Shawn Pittman, head coach] and Robbie [Abel] were all disappointed with how the boys went into that gam.
“If we win that Toronto game, we are in a good spot right now, but unfortunately, we didn’t show up and we have put ourselves in a hole that we are willing to dig ourselves out of.
“It is just going to take some hard graft, and the boys are putting their heads down and doing their jobs.”
Having kept many of the players that made last season’s Utah team so lethal, Lasike will be hoping that his arrival back at Zions Bank can lead to brighter horizons for the team.
An influential player in 2018, now with even more professional rugby experience under his belt, the 31-year-old’s presence will be huge for the team one and off the field.
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