Paul Eddison charts his journey from rotten scrum-half at Rouen to flying winger for France, via a spell on the sevens circuit
Gabin Villiere’s incredible rugby journey
“He’s one tough hombre.” It is hard to imagine a bigger compliment from Shaun Edwards. The now France defence coach was describing winger Gabin Villiere, a player who has had perhaps the most unlikely path to the top in a team that is full of them.
At 26, Villiere is now one of the first names on Fabien Galthie’s team sheet and yet this time three years ago the highest level he had played in 15s was the French third flight.
It took a whistlestop spell in sevens, an unlikely move to Toulon and a global pandemic for Villiere to get his shot at Test level. But now the opportunity has presented itself, he has seized it with the oversized hands that have earned him the nickname ‘Frodo’ from his club colleagues.
Wind the clock back to 2016 and it was under the tutelage of former England scrum-half Richard Hill at Rouen that Villiere went from being a second-team replacement scrum-half to tearing it up on the wing and notching 26 tries in 23 games for the first XV.
Ben Mercer, who came through the academy in Bath and ended up playing alongside Villiere in Rouen, explains just how remarkable his journey was.
“At the beginning, no one discouraged him but no one encouraged him either,” recalls Mercer, who has written of his experiences of the French lower levels in his book Fringes: Life on the Edge of Professional Rugby.
“It wasn’t like he was a serious rugby player. He turned up every day, he was always at the skills sessions, in the gym and did it for a couple of years with no evidence of it going well. With the best will in the world, it’s not a Top 14 team, it’s a Federale One team. But he was incredibly persistent.
“There was a game the first year I was there when I was hurt and didn’t play. We went away to Arras and he was on the bench for the B team. He came on at scrum-half and he never looked good when he played there. They did an 8-9-15 move and the No 8 flipped it to him. At that point you make your mind up what you’re going to do and as he wasn’t very good at passing he was always going to run but he actually looked quite natural, he had a bit of zip about him.
“After the game a group of us spoke to some of the coaches and said, ‘Gabin is really bad at scrum-half but when he’s running with the ball, he looks quite dangerous’. They listened to us but did nothing about it.
“I was there for four years and he went from the bench for the B team to starting to being their best player. By his fourth year, he was playing in the centres for the first team but not doing much. After a couple of games I remember coming on, it was mid-game and he moved out to the wing and scored twice, with one nice finish in the corner. Having scored twice, he started the next game on the wing and after that he didn’t look back.”
His exploits for Rouen caught the eye of then Dax coach Jerome Daret, who tried to convince Villiere to leave his native Normandy for the South-West of France to no avail. When Daret was named head coach of the France Sevens team, he tried to get hold of Villiere once again, this time with more success.
While France Sevens have long flattered to deceive, Villiere’s arrival coincided with an uptick in results. As it turns out, it was no coincidence. His crowning moment came at the Hong Kong Sevens in 2019, when he was sensational as France reached the final, to the point he was named Player of the Tournament.
In doing so, he became the first Frenchman ever to achieve the feat, following in the footsteps of the likes of David Campese, Jonah Lomu, Christian Cullen and, of course, the incomparable Waisale Serevi, who did it five times.
Former England Sevens skipper Rob Vickerman was commentating at the time and was blown away by Villiere. He says: “We did a bit of digging when we were out there and one of the guys was in touch with Richard Hill. He said to keep an eye out for this Villiere kid, he’s pretty special. So you do. And then as the tournament progressed, we thought he’s exactly what France need.
“The French typically frustrate me in sevens because you think they should be the perfect mix of flair and speed and sheer prowess, but the only time they have won was my first tournament in 2005. The guy who ran amok was Vincent Clerc. I was about 19 and wondered who the hell is this guy? He basically won the tournament for them (in Paris) by himself. It looked like Villiere was of a very similar ilk. He was wiry, abrasive, incredibly fit and just didn’t seem to stop.
“I didn’t actually know he was a winger, I thought he was more of a scrum-half because he was constantly around the breakdown. That is something you don’t often see with the wingers. What stood out in sevens was his work-rate and that has come across to 15s.”
Like many, Vickerman expected Villiere to become a stalwart of the French Sevens set-up, but he was recalled to Rouen by Hill and then in May 2019, a month after his Hong Kong exploits, Toulon came calling. Where he had previously turned down Dax, there was no way Villiere was going to say no to the French giants.
His first season with them was cut short by the Covid-19 pandemic, but it also provided him with an opportunity that might not otherwise have come his way. When a club-versus-country dispute over the 2020 autumn schedule for les Bleus meant that no player could play more than three matches of the six that were planned, Galthie found himself having to cast his net a little further, with Villiere called into action.
His debut came against Italy in front of an empty Stade de France. When a lineout was stolen early in the second half and popped back to Villiere, he put on the afterburners and appeared to be running at double speed compared to everyone else on his way to a debut try.
A week later in the Autumn Nations Cup final at Twickenham, when France’s third string took England’s World Cup finalists to extra-time, Villiere stood out once more, with Vickerman again taken by him.
He says: “I actually noticed him more when he was playing at Twickenham and there was no crowd. You could hear his constant communication and he was bringing on some of the other players who weren’t that well known. The point of difference was how much work he does.”
As he had at Rouen, Villiere went from France’s reserves to a nailed-on starter for the first team, forcing his way ahead of Teddy Thomas in the pecking order for the 2021 Six Nations. A successful July tour of Australia and a full 80 minutes in the landmark win over the All Blacks in November followed.
It was fitting that this year’s campaign saw him become the first Frenchman since Clerc to score a Six Nations hat-trick, in the round one victory over Italy. But if anything, his performance against Ireland a week later was even better, when it was his jackaling and rock-solid defence that caught the eye. It was all the more impressive when it was revealed afterwards that he had suffered a fractured sinus during the match. As Edwards says, one tough hombre!
Whether it was stopping Bundee Aki dead in his tracks or marching Hugo Keenan back ten metres before shunting him into touch, Villiere gave as good as he got and some.
For former France winger and sevens star Julien Candelon, it is down to his frame. He says: “Gabin’s body type means that he was very well-suited to sevens but also 15s. When you see him, you don’t do a double take because of his size. He’s not big but he’s very strong, he’s got a low centre of gravity and he’s so lively that he bounces back off players and is very elusive.
“So despite not being that heavy, he is able to bounce out of tackles. He’s proof that you can excel at the highest level with an unusual build for a rugby player. And the fact that he is lively on his toes and elusive means that when he takes on a defender, those little changes of direction can destabilise the opponent and swing the balance of power. That’s his strength. He creates a lot of uncertainty in the defence.”
The question now is what is the limit for Villiere? While the sinus injury kept him out of the trip to Scotland, he was back for the closing rounds of the Six Nations and helped France seal a first Grand Slam in 12 years. Injury seems to be the biggest obstacle to his ambition of being part of France’s Rugby World Cup side. His performances since breaking into the side have made him all but undroppable when fit opposite Damian Penaud.
It has been an incredible journey from the Rouen B team in the French third flight. With RWC 2023 followed by a home Olympics in 2024, where the sevens will be held at the Stade de France, there might still be a fairytale ending in store for Villiere, who is only too aware of the unlikely path he treads.
As he himself said recently: “It was a dream for me at the start, coming from Federale One. It still is in a way. I won’t take for granted what has happened to me. I’m aware that I’m unusual and it suits me.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2022 edition of Rugby World.
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