He’s wowed in league and union, and now he is about to unleash his magic in the Premiership. Tom English delves into the Fijian's “mind-blowing” skill-set
What to expect from Semi Radradra at Bristol Bears
One of the challenges in cataloguing the career of Semi Radradra is the hours spent watching his highlights reel, from the vast array of tries he scored for Parramatta Eels in rugby league in Australia, to his electrifying pace and finishing from centre or wing at Toulon and Bordeaux in France, to a coruscating display for the Barbarians against England and onwards with Fiji against the world in Japan.
If you’re going to disappear down this rabbit hole, set aside many hours. You’ll begin in daylight and you’ll end at dusk. Radradra breaks defences and records, almost in equal measure. There are many moments, many tries to pick from. The commentaries are priceless.
“Uh-oh, here comes Semi!” says an Australian commentator when a young Radradra fields a cross-kick in his 22 and somehow evades a wall of four Rabbitohs defenders. “Who wants him?” he continues, with glee. “You take him! No, he’s yours!” Radradra accelerates out of his own half, throws a dummy and canters in under the posts. Somebody called it an exhibition. In that sense, he’s had more exhibitions than Pablo Picasso.
Now he’s arrived at Bristol Bears as part of Pat Lam’s increasingly exciting project. Radradra is one of the most exciting players in the world. He’s 28.
A playmaker and finisher, a carrier and offloader. He has a try-scoring and try-creating record that is beyond awesome. Without question he’s a player who quickens the pulse.
How do you stop him? “You take out a gun licence,” quips his friend and Fiji team-mate Josh Matavesi, now of Bath.
Here’s Lam: “I coached Semi when in charge of the Barbarians (in 2018). I knew all about the player, but I didn’t know about the man and the man is every bit as important to me as the player.
“I watched him closely. You observe habits and the way guys interact with people. I try to watch when people don’t think I’m watching and I was blown away by his commitment to being better. You have players with extreme X-factor but some don’t last because they don’t have the work ethic to go with it.
“You’ve seen what Semi does on the field, all that devastation he creates and all those defenders he beats. He doesn’t do it by accident. He’s an incredible professional. Everybody will tell you that. His discipline and dedication are outstanding.”
That’s why Bristol, and their moneybags owner Steve Lansdown, are paying top dollar for Radradra, just as they’re paying top dollar for Charles Piutau. Those two in the same back-line? It’s a thrilling prospect.
“You know what the Barbarians environment is like,” says Lam. “It’s relaxed. People have fun. Lots of nights out, good sessions on the beer. We had a 1970s night and Semi got dressed up in this outrageous disco outfit, high heels and everything. He wasn’t drinking but he was very much part of it.
“As things started to kick on, he came and said, ‘Coach, is it okay if I head away now?’ I said, ‘Mate, of course’. He wanted to be ready for training the next day. He probably did his stretching and mobility exercises, just to get his body and mind right for the next day.
“In the Barbarians game against England, Semi was just ridiculous. One try, two assists, all sorts of chaos created. He was with Toulon and was about to join Bordeaux and I told him that if he ever wanted to play in England he should give me a call. During the World Cup, I got the call. And it happened very quickly after that.”
Dave Attwood, the Bristol second-row, spent time with Radradra at Toulon, as did Chris Ashton. Both say that Radradra is the best player they’ve ever played with. “I didn’t know anything about Semi before I went to Toulon other than a few highlights I might have seen,” says Attwood.
“What you had was a guy who had spent years in rugby league in Australia now playing top-level rugby union for the first time – and in a foreign country. Chris was top try-scorer that season and he said openly that all he did was run around following Semi.
“Follow this guy around the field and he will give you the ball over the line. The amount of times Semi could have scored but instead gave the pass was incredible. He could have scored a dozen more tries at least.
“That’s what he does. He draws in defenders and either beats them with his step or his pace or his power, or he gets offloads because his hands are crazy good. But what people didn’t particularly pick up on that season was he was really high up the charts in terms of most turnovers in the entire league.
“For a league convert (he did grow up playing union), the breakdown is the area you are basically not supposed to get. That’s supposed to be the difficult bit. That was absolutely astonishing to me. Mind-blowing. It wasn’t just the stuff you knew he was good at, it was the stuff he wasn’t supposed to be good at as well.
“He obviously spent time studying breakdowns. He went about his business and learnt. He’s a ludicrously good player and I’m looking forward to being his team-mate again. He’s the best I’ve had the privilege to play with. And not just the best, comfortably the best.”
Matt Scott, the Edinburgh and Scotland centre, takes us behind the scenes in a side trying to plot Radradra’s downfall. It’s this season’s Challenge Cup and Edinburgh are about to face Radradra’s Bordeaux in the pool stage.
“You always have these previews with the defence coach and Radradra was their main threat, so we were watching the highlights of his last three or four games where he was doing ridiculous stuff,” says Scott. “He’s sprinting past people, throwing offloads, killing teams.
“The Edinburgh boys are chuckling away like fans. ‘Ah, nice!’ ‘Ooft, what a pass!’ ‘Different class.’ Our coach says, ‘Lads, we’re not here to admire him, we’re here to find a way of stopping him’.” Edinburgh played Bordeaux twice and Radradra scored in both games.
For some, that Barbarians game against England in May 2018 was their first realisation that Radradra was something else. The Baa-Baas won 63-45 and Matavesi was in the set-up.
Matavesi wasn’t one of those taken aback by Radradra’s excellence. He’d already admired the big man for years, right back to his NRL days with the Eels.
“They were my team and I loved Semi. It was a thrill to finally play with him. You know when you play schoolboy rugby and there’s always one person who is so much better than anyone else – that was Semi at Twickenham.
“Myself and John Afoa were joking about it on the pitch. He was like the big kid running through everybody. He was making some very talented international players look very average.
“I don’t know if he realises how good he is. I spent the Barbarians week just watching and learning from him. He carried stretch bands everywhere. He was always prepared, always doing extras. It’s a lifestyle for him. It didn’t matter that it was the Barbarians and that the mood was more casual, he still did the same things he always does. I’m so jealous of the young Bristol boys who will get to learn from him now.
“I spent a lot of time with him at the World Cup and it was a dream. As a man, he’s very humble, he’s shy, but when you get to know him he’s funny. He went to the NRL young and provided for his family and his village, Somosomo. He doesn’t like big cities and is happiest when he’s driving around at home in his pick-up truck with about 30 or 40 of his mates in the back. He’s a village boy but he’s adapted to life outside. Bristol have a gem on their hands.”
Semi is coming. Uh-oh, indeed.
This article originally appeared in the August 2020 edition of Rugby World magazine.
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