In terms of announcing yourself on the international stage, few have done so in the way Vaea Fifita did on Saturday night, in New Plymouth. After all, blindside flankers aren’t meant to take the ball 40 metres out from the opposing tryline, and scorching opposing backs to finish in the corner.
While this weekend’s performance was one heck of a way to make the international audience sit up and take notice, Last Word on Rugby contributor Scott MacLean has seen that ‘and more’ from Fifita over the past few seasons of Wellington domestic competition. Enough to make him, and others in the Wellington region say “he is the next Big Thing.”
Watching Fifita Fulfil His Potential
To understand this remarkable talent, it’s helpful to understand where he has come from. Born and raised in Tonga, Vaea Fifita first came onto the radar as a schoolboy when he played a standout role in 1990 for Tongan Schools against Auckland Grammar – traditionally one of New Zealand’s better rugby schools – on a short tour of New Zealand.
At that time, another Auckland school, Tamaki College, offered him a scholarship and Fifita moved to New Zealand. His First XV performances for Tamaki caught the eye of former All Black Murray Mexted, who in turn encouraged him south to the IRANZ academy.
Then by extension, Vaea was adjoined to Mexted’s old club in the capital; the Wellington Axemen. It was in ‘yellow and black’ that I witnessed this player first hand.
Pic of Wgtn Axeman No 8 Vaea Fifita, whose 2nd half solo try from base of scrum near halfway v Pet S1 2day was magic! pic.twitter.com/D1UBAQCO
My first refereeing interaction with Vaea Fifita was back in 2012. Then, I met a tall (nearly 2 meters in height) lanky, yet immensely strong kid with blistering pace once he got those long legs going. At the time, the Axemen’s top side played in the Senior Two grade; the third tier of rugby in Wellington.
The first impression of watching Fifita run amok amongst players at that level – other clubs second and third sides – was simply cartoonish stuff. As an official, the common view is of Fifita either tackling smaller men or of him running away towards the opposition tryline. By the end of that season, Fifita had scored 26 tries in 22 games! With his influence, that led the Axemen – via a midseason promotion – to the Senior One grade title.
Vaea Fifita Represents Wellington
Early the following year, Vaea had a starring role in Wellington rugby, winning the National Sevens crown for the first time in a decade. His sevens coach Scott Waldrom told Last Word on Rugby, “yeah Vaea had all the physical size and ability with the ball. Many people in Wellington rugby will be happy he is now running over the Pumas, and not them.”
Fifita was a player that others would look up to; literally, and by the end of that season, the Axemen were back in the Premier ranks. And Vaea Fifita had made his way into his first provincial XV’s squad. He would go on to debut versus North Harbour in 2013 for the Wellington Lions.
Stepping Up to the Big Time!
Fifita continued to dominate at club level while there continued to be whispers about his ability to take his remarkable physical gifts to the next level. He would be a threat at club level through 2014, an exciting prospect for the game in the Wellington region.
Eventually Super Rugby came calling for Vaea, and he linked with the Hurricanes as injury cover in 2015. Earning a full-time contract ahead of the successful 2016 campaign. A man for the moment, fortunate in both his fitness and in selection over the year. He played in every game, and his partnership with another rookie; Michael Fatialofa, was a key cog in the ‘Canes finally lifting their maiden title.
That and another solid provincial campaign highlighted by his outlandish vault over Counties-Manukau’s Piers Francis, firmly put him in the All Black picture. Fifita put his big boot in the door, by making the end-of-year tour–firstly as injury cover for Brodie Retallick–and stayed on after Luke Romano headed home for a family bereavement.
2017 didn’t start that well though. Fifita was injured at the Brisbane Global 10’s tournament, but once fit he was an easy choice for Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd. His strong return to form then saw the Tongan-born player handed his first cap wearing an All Blacks jersey. A debut from the bench in the romp over Samoa netted him his first Test try, before last Saturday’s stellar starting debut.
Fifita, All Blacks Loose Forward
At the international level, All Black blindsides of the past decade have tended to fit into a mold cast by the late, great, Jerry Collins. That is; physically imposing hard men that set the tone defensively. Collins was superseded by Jerome Kaino, and in recent times Liam Squire and Elliot Dixon have also filled that role.
Fifita brings other attributes to the role. More than tall enough to be used as another lineout option, his strength and speed can bring a different variation on attack; in both midfield and on the edge. Plus, Fifita for me has the versatility to be play blindside flanker, lock, or number eight; and could probably play on the wing if circumstances required it.
Defensively, he will remain a work in progress as he learns how to read the game, his roles, and team structures. But given how far he has come in a relatively short space of time, who’d bet against him mastering those?
Then there as those physical gifts. It’s not hard to imagine that if he’d grown up in Jamaica, he’d be an heir apparent to Usain Bolt. Or whipping down bouncers on a cricket pitch, he is that talented. Steve Hansen has seen more than a few rugby players in his time, and for him to say what he has said about Fifita speaks volumes.
“A really, really good athlete, probably one of the best athletes I’ve had anything to do with from natural sheer ability.”
That shear ability was a ‘human highlight reel’ on Saturday night in New Plymouth.
As for this humble community-level rugby referee’s opinion? He is the most remarkable raw athlete I think I’ve seen in a game [that I have officiated]. If he can harness all of that and keep learning… well the sky is the limit.
Congratulation Vaea, “go get em!”
Scott MacLean is a Wellington Regional Referee, and has been match referee or assistant referee in Wellington domestic rugby competition for nearly ten years.
“Main photo credit”
Embed from Getty Images