As Test match debuts go, Virimi Vakatawa’s was something special. It took the 23-year-old France winger just 14 minutes to mark his first international appearance with a try. It was a sweet score, too, stepping inside a defender to dot down for the opening try of France’s 23-21 victory over the Italians.
Yes, replays showed he had a foot in touch, but Vakatawa’s assured display was one of the few plus points in what was an unconvincing display by France in their first match under new coach Guy Noves.
As one newspaper headlined its report on the match: “Virimi, veni, vidi, vici.”
Seeing and conquering the weakest backline in the Six Nations is one thing, however, and Vakatawa will face a far sterner examination this afternoon against Ireland.
Jonathan Sexton will surely look to probe the Fijian-born winger’s defence with his educated boot, while Andrew Trimble and the Kearney brothers will run angles far more sophisticated than anything the Italian three-quarters managed.
But the Ireland backline beware. Vakatawa has the potential to be the most exciting attacking winger that the Six Nations has seen for a while, and what made his debut against Italy all the more impressive was the fact it was his first game of 15s since December 2013, when he played for Racing 92 against Harlequins in a European tie.
But the story of Vakatawa’s rapid rugby ascension starts in 2010, when Racing’s then head coach, Pierre Berbizier, asked his two Fijian players, Simon Raiwalui and Sireli Bobo if they knew of any young wingers back home with potential. As a matter of fact, they replied, there was one who’d recently caught their eye. A slim thing by the name of Virimi Vakatawa, who was flying down the wing for the Fijian U18 side.
Calls were made, flights booked, and a wide-eyed Vakatawa arrived in Paris for a trial. He weighed just 75 kilos, all sinewy grace and pace, but not much power. Nonetheless Berbizier recognised at once his raw talent.
Vakatawa was despatched to the gym and told to bulk up, which he did under the watchful eye of Racing and Argentina wing Juan Imhoff. A year later he’d added 20kgs to his frame. “He gained in power without losing his sidestep and his flair,” said Raiwalui, who says that Vakatawa also possess “a thirst to learn and an iron mentality”.
Vakatawa’s toughness was evident not long after signing terms with Racing when he broke his leg and spent several weeks in hospital.
“His liver and kidneys became infected,” Raiwalui told Midi Olympique
“The doctors were really worried and some even thought that Virimi would never play rugby again.”
But he did and soon Vakatawa had left Racing for a central Sevens contract with the FFR, reputed to be €10,000 a month, double the average for a member of the France Sevens squad.
But he’s earned that salary on the World Sevens circuit, running in 43 tries in 61 matches. As recently as the Dubai tournament last December, he was voted Player of the Tournament.
“Personally I love to run with the ball,” he said on receiving the award. “Every time I get the ball I just want to run and score tries. Attacking is my favourite part of the game.” It’s his defence that some in France fear will be exposed by the better sides in the Six Nations. Others, however, believe that Vakatawa is a good enough rugby player to quickly adapt to the different defensive challenges of the 15-a-side code. “For me, he’s the best winger in France in all forms of rugby,” said Jean-Claude Skrela, who coached France in the 1999 World Cup and is now manager of the Sevens squad.
“Frankly, I’m not worried about his integration into the France XV. He’s got the talent to be a success anywhere.”
Julien Malzieu, who has represented France on the wing in both forms of the sport, shares Skrela’s confidence, saying that Vakatawa has played enough 15s to adapt. “He knows that the way of defending [in 15s] is totally different,” said Malzieu.
Some of the French press have labelled Vakatawa as their answer to Sonny Bill Williams, the brilliant Kiwi who has excelled in both 15s and 7s. Pierre Berbizier, however, cautions against getting too carried away at this stage.
“The transition between the two disciplines doesn’t happen from one day to the next,” he said, prior to the Italy match.
Vakatawa made the transition look easy last Saturday but Ireland will be far more of a test for the winger. Then again, it might not be the easiest afternoon for the Irish defence.
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