Saints farewell interview: Lukhan Salakaia-Loto

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Lukhan Salakaia-Loto may not go as far as Api Ratuniyarawa and name his child in honour of the Saints, but there is no doubt that he will have a lasting link with Northampton as he departs this summer.

Salakaia-Loto is heading home for family reasons, cutting short his stay at Saints, which lasted a year.

First though, he is awaiting the birth of his second child, which will be born in Northampton.

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And though he is unlikely to name it Franklin, like Ratuniyarawa did in a nod to the Gardens, Salakaia-Loto has no less affection for the Saints.

Lukhan Salakaia-LotoLukhan Salakaia-Loto
Lukhan Salakaia-Loto

In fact, he couldn't have enjoyed his stay at the club more.

"I've loved it," Salakaia-Loto said, speaking to this publication on Tuesday afternoon.

"It was everything and more that I expected coming over here.

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"The experience itself, going to work with the group that we have, day in, day out - I thoroughly enjoyed being among the group and the way the group plays and is coached.

"The group accepted me and accepted everyone for who they are that came through this season, and it's such a tight-knit group.

"It's probably one of the tightest groups I've had the pleasure of being a part of.

"There was also the atmosphere at the Gardens and playing in front of a full capacity with the noise and the support - it was unreal.

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"The benefit of playing in a small town like Northampton is that everyone gets behind the teams that represent the town and that's something I never got to experience in my past.

"Home games are sell-outs and the fans are next level, such loyal fans who are always so supportive through all the ups and downs.

"There were so many things that made the experience what it was and I'm just so grateful I have got to experience it.

"This past 12 months has brought a lot of happiness back into my life and my career, and it will serve me well in the future.

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"Any future individual success I have, whether it's at my next destination or Test honours, Northampton will have played a large part in me getting back to that space.

"I've got a lot of thanks for the Saints and the Northampton community as a whole."

As you can see, Salakaia-Loto is so enthusiastic about life at Saints that he barely paused for breath during the first five minutes of this interview.

He wanted to cram in all the good things he experienced at the Gardens and was glowing in his praise for all aspects of his stay.

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So you can tell just how hard it has been for him to say goodbye.

"It was not an easy decision to make but it was one where I had to put my family first, my partner and our two kids," Salakaia-Loto said.

"It's been quite tough on them with the transition halfway across the world. I knew that would be the case coming over here in the first place, but just with the second child on the way and being over here without our support network has been quite tough.

"I had to put my family above all and do what's best for my partner and our kids."

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Salakaia-Loto had seemed primed for a big second season at Saints, having shown so many glimpses of his immense ability.

He settled in so quickly after switching from the Queensland Reds last summer, showing no signs of jetlag following his trip across the globe.

"In terms of the rugby, I knew I would settle in well because watching from afar during my time thinking about coming over here, I knew my game would fit in with what they had going on already," Salakaia-Loto said.

"It was just the opportunity that was given to me to thrive and having that chance in such a good team was so beneficial to me so maybe that's why it seemed easy for me.

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"Really it was because I was enjoying my rugby and that's something I've done all year.

"To be honest, I hadn't enjoyed my rugby like that for a couple of years and when I'm at my best is when I'm enjoying my rugby. Saints definitely did that for me."

Salakaia-Loto believes he will go back to Australia a better player.

He added: "Any success I get to have in the future, Saints will be a massive part of that success and the reason I can get back to those places.

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"It's definitely made me a better player, a better person and definitely a better father as well, being over here with my young family by ourselves.

"It's helped me in so many aspects of my life."

So what were Salakaia-Loto's highlights from his 24 appearances, which included two tries?

"There are so many highlights to mention," the 26-year-old said.

"My first try, against Bristol at home, was pretty special.

"Watching the boys knock over Leicester away - obviously I was suspended - because we had gone through a lot away, not winning many games. It was a massive part of the season.

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"Us making the top four was great at the end of the season but most of all, the relationships I got to build off the field and playing with a group of boys that I love.

"I've gelled really well with the lads and I've had some great laughs at training as well as some awesome nights out in Northampton with the boys as well.

"The toughest part will be leaving the boys and saying goodbye to them, as well as feeling I haven't achieved quite what I wanted to when I set out to come here.

"But there are so many special moments to take home and definitely playing in front of a packed Franklin's Gardens is always special."

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One of the most difficult moments of Salakaia-Loto's season came at the Gardens in January as he was sent off late on against La Rochelle for leading with his forearm.

It was an unfortunate dismissal and one with no malice intended, but it meant he would be absent for key matches against Leicester, London Irish and Sale.

"It wasn't ideal getting carded, especially when it's in the 82 minute and the game is done," Salakaia-Loto said.

"Stuff like that happens and it is what it is, but it wasn't ideal."

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Salakaia-Loto didn't start as often as he would have wanted after that as other players stepped up and took their chance.

But he was still a key member of the squad and featured off the bench in the Gallagher Premiership play-off semi-final defeat at Saracens as Saints fell one step short of Twickenham.

"The way we played last season was how I like to play - eyes-up footy," he said.

"As a player, being in and around systems like that as well as playing different types of games against different teams has definitely made me a better player.

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"Playing alongside the likes of Courts (Courtney Lawes), Biggs (Dan Biggar) earlier in the year, Fin Smith, Luds (Lewis Ludlam), Hutch (Rory Hutchinson), Furbs (George Furbank), Ribeye (David Ribbans) - there are too many boys to mention.

"Trokkie (Juarno Augustus) is another one and there are so many guys who have made me better simply by getting to know them and grafting alongside them.

"The coaches as well, there are so many people who have made me better and if I'm just one per cent better, I've left a better player.

"Part of the reason why I came here was to get better, as well as many other things, and it's something I'll look back on fondly and be grateful that I got to experience it."

Salakaia-Loto enjoyed the leadership at Saints.

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He said: "It was obviously a tough year for us, especially playing away from home, and we had a lot of boys drop out and a lot of boys come in so credit to everyone for how they handled that.

"It's been a wild year and for us to make the top four was a goal of ours.

"Top two would have been nice but the way things have been handled this year and the way we've been led has been nothing short of a high standard."

Salakaia-Loto feels confident Saints have a strong chance of winning silverware next season.

"They've always got a chance, mate," he said.

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"Having been here for a short time, I've got to see why they been successful in the past and there's no reason why they can't be successful going forward.

"It's hard saying ‘they’ because I still feel like I'm very much a part of it, but things are changing.

"As much as I'd definitely love to still be a part of it, things have changed, so I'll definitely be watching from afar back in Australia with a keen eye, waking up to watch the boys play.

"Hopefully the club goes well not only in the Prem but in Europe as well so they can get back to those heights that were such good times for not only the club but also Northampton as well."

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Salakaia-Loto seems destined to join Melbourne Rebels and he should have a shot at a World Cup place all being well.

But he feels it is too soon to consider anything other than getting his feet back under the table at home.

"Firstly, I'm just focused on getting me and my tribe back home to Australia and making sure they're happy and sweet, especially with two kids," he said.

"That's what's on my mind at the moment and anything outside of that is the unknown.

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"It's bittersweet because although it's always good to go home, it is hard because it was such a difficult decision for me to leave the Saints.

"I'm aware that it's good to go home but it's also tough for me because I'm leaving a place when I have been accepted and taken in as one of their own, as a Saint.

"No one wants to leave early and I'm sure that goes both ways.

"Whatever the future holds, whether it's success, good times or happy times, Northampton and the Saints will be where I send my thanks because they've definitely done a lot for me in a short space of time."

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