Salakaia-Loto, Rodda and why 'it's not weak to speak'

Wallabies World Cup hopeful Lukhan Salakaia-Loto has a message for the men of the world: It's not weak to speak.

Nine months on from the sudden death of his stepfather, a period that has seen him help Queensland Reds teammate Izack Rodda through virtually the same scenario, Salakaia-Loto is still a work-in-progress.

But he wears a smile on his face, happy with life both on and off the field, better for the decision that saw him step away from rugby for the final games of the Rugby Championship and spring tour.

"It's a day-to-day progress - people who've experienced this stuff wouldn't say it's easy," he told ESPN. "I'm doing well, I'm enjoying my footy and I think when I'm enjoying my footy it's when I'm trying my best to enjoy life off the field as well."

Salakaia-Loto lost his stepfather - a man he never saw as anything but a father - in the lead-up to Australia's Test against Argentina on the Gold Coast in early September last year. When the Wallabies lost that game, Salakaia-Loto lashed out in moment of raw emotion after an unruly fan suggested the team "played with some heart".

The decision to step away from rugby soon followed.

It was a smart decision mentally. But one that also presented the opportunity to work on his body, too, putting him in the best condition of his career at the start of the Super Rugby season.

"It has changed quite a bit, yeah, and I think it's down to the fact that I had a bit of time off and got a full preseason under my belt," Salakaia-Loto responded when asked if he was in better physical knick than last year.

"In 2017 I didn't really get a full preseason; so one of the positives from me taking a bit of time off from the gold jersey last year was being able to get some time to work on my body, work on my game a bit.

"And full credit to the S&C [strength and conditioning] team down at the Reds, the physio team as well, they put a lot of hard work into me as well as the other boys; you look at Samu [Kerevi], he's in great shape as well. And I'm feeling the best I ever have as a result, but there is still a lot of room for improvement."

On the eve of the Reds' season opener, Salakaia-Loto watched on as Rodda suffered the same family tragedy he was continuing to work through. But sometimes in the toughest situations, the rarest of friendships are borne.

"Yeah, 100 percent, me and Rods, we've got so much tighter over the year," Salakaia-Loto told ESPN. "I think that was always going to happen, getting tighter, as we played with each other more, but unfortunately through the circumstances that we both went through, it's sped up that process and we've got even closer to each other.

"So I'm happy for that, we're real tight; I've been there for him and vice-versa, he's been there for me. And just reiterating to each other, that it's not weak to speak and we can speak to each other; as big and strong as we look, you don't know what people are going through. So I'm just glad that I can be there for him and he can be there for me, and now that we're so tight off the field it's helping the way that we play alongside each other the field.

"I definitely think you can see that."

Salakaia-Loto's performances for the Reds this season have been strong. In spending time at both lock and No. 6 this season, he tops both the second-row position for run metres [538] and tackle busts [21] while being a reliable target for the Reds at lineout time.

Those numbers hold up well when comparing them at blindside flanker, the position where he hopes his long-term future lies.

"No. 6 ... that's my preferred position, that's where I feel most comfortable; that's what I feel suits my game more. But in saying that, I can cover lock ... whatever the coaches want," he said.

"I haven't been playing No. 6 for long and there's guys out there who've been playing six in Australia and around the world for so much longer than me. I've only been playing rugby for a short period of time but that's no excuse for me; that's something that I take on the chin, the competition, because that's exciting and means I've got a lot to learn and a lot to catch up on.

"But in saying that, that freedom is something that I like, being able to be a link player or to be in the middle with the tight five, or on the edges. Six is something that I definitely want to [play] fulltime moving forward."

News that Will Skelton is closing in on a shock return to the Wallabies for the World Cup would likely reduce Michael Cheika's lock places by one, and ram home the fact Salakaia-Loto must finish out the remaining weeks of Super Rugby as best he possibly can. But the versatility to play both No. 6 and within the second-row might just be the point-of-difference that sees him earn a ticket to Japan come September.

"It would mean a lot, it would mean so much," Salakaia-Loto said of the World Cup. "I've obviously never been a part of a World Cup, so I don't know what to expect and what not. But that's something that I'm striving towards, to be a part of a World Cup campaign and not only to be a part of a World Cup, but to win one.

"Not too many players can say they've won one, only a very few, so that's something that I'm keeping in the back of my mind."

A mind he continues to work on, and one he knows it helps to discuss.