By Gavin Mortimer, Rugby World writer
THE TOP 14 may be a slow-burner right now with few games of real drama but one man doing his best to light the touch paper is Virimi Vakatawa. The 20-year-old winger was in scorching form a couple of weeks back for Racing against Toulon, scoring a superb solo try proving a real handful for the opposition defence. The boy’s got talent coming out of his ears, not to mention muscles in just about inconceivable inch of his 15 stone frame, and while he’s raw and rough-edged the Fijian could well be one of the stars of the 2015 World Cup.
But for France not for Fiji. Vakatawa arrived in Paris three seasons ago and is now eligible for Les Bleus. According to Simon Raiwalui, the Fijian forwards coach at Racing, Vakatawa “feels French”. He’s got himself a French girlfriend, he speaks the language and during last year’s World Cup he was rooting for France as they made their way to the final.
But it hasn’t been easy for Vakatawa since arriving in France in 2010. A leg injury hindered his progress at first, then he fell ill and for a time it seemed he might just be another Polynesian powerhouse unable to adapt to the punishing demands of the Top 14. But Raiwalui took the then teenager under his wing, bringing him on holiday with his family and enlisting the help of Racing’s other Fijian, veteran winger Sireli Bobo.
As Vakatawa began to acclimatise to his new surroundings so his rugby began to take shape. Last season he made three starts for Racing, showing glimpses of promise on the right wing. This season, however, he’s forced his way into the starting line-up and that try against Toulon has caused France to sit up and take note.
Midi Olympique ran an interview with Vakatawa last week under the headline ‘Le Reve Bleu’ [the Blue Dream] in which the youngster declared it was his dream to play for France. “I know I’ve got a lot of work still to do,” he said, “but I’ll do everything possible to become a French international.”
Bobo first alerted Racing to Vakatawa after reading about his prodigious talent in the Fiji Times. Every week it seemed the paper was running a report about his latest match-winning display so Bobo sought out Raiwalui and Pierre Berbezier [Racing’s director of rugby] and suggested they invite Vakatawa for a trial. Soon he was signed up to the club’s youth academy.
It’s a path that more and more French clubs are looking to tread as they fall in in with the new rules regarding overseas players: JIFF (Joueurs Issus des Filières de Formation) to give them their proper French name. From next season onwards 60 per cent of playing squads must be eligible for the national team, a policy put in place in 2009 to counter the proliferation of well-paid overseas stars in the Top 14. JIFF’s definition of eligible is a player who has spent three seasons in a club’s youth academy or been registered with a French club for five seasons before the age of 21. Consequently more and more clubs are talent-spotting promising youngsters from the Pacific Islands, Argentina and Georgia so that they fulfil the criteria.
“I will help all the young Fijians who wish to come and play in France,” says Bobo. “I’m not an agent, I’m not doing it for money, but for them, to offer them a life that they couldn’t have if they stayed on our islands.”
As Vakatawa admits he’s far from the finished article, but his potential is huge. In the space of a few weeks he’s become one of the most talked about players in France and his rise appears to have taken even the Racing website unawares. They’ve yet to post Vakatawa’s player profile online but that will surely soon change as the Fijian flier continues to burn up French rugby
Vakatawa’s try v Toulon is around the 1min 10 mark