The sevens star has gone from military life to a short-term contract with Clermont

From the French Foreign Legion to the Top 14, meet Tavite Veredamu

Sure there were days when he wanted to quit. The training to get into the French Foreign Legion is infamous for a reason and by his own admission, the 18-year old Tavite Veredamu had only stumbled upon the idea of joining the French army after Googling around.

However, a week out from beginning the Top 14 season with Clermont – a new frontier for him – the now 30-year-old reflects on the yomp to get to this point.

“Staying in the village (Nakavu) I had seen my parents struggling, they were looking after my siblings and I just wanted to come out of Fiji and provide more income for my family,” the back-rower tells Rugby World of his initial motivations. “I saw the French army on the internet and told myself, ‘Why not try this?’

“I didn’t even know it was really hard! My dreams were just to get out of the village and join the army and earn money.

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“I arrived in France in September 2008. I went directly to the base. It’s already hard when you are so far from your family and you don’t speak any French. And the first month and a half with the Foreign Legion you do all the tests before you get selected for four months of training. You wake up at like four or five o’clock, you clean up all the stuff.

“For the four months training they take you to a forest camp and you don’t eat well, sleep well. It’s training all day, running, you learn to speak French. At first it was really hard. In France it was the first time I saw snow falling. When it’s really cold they won’t let you put a jacket on, so you get used to the weather. There’s no heater, you run every day, with packs and guns and radios – every week you would do 50km walking with all this stuff, late at night or early in the morning.”

So what motivated you to pull through?

Veredamu explains: “At the maximum level when you are tired and you cannot sleep, I’d think ‘What am I doing here? It’s better at home, smiling and playing with your friends.’ But before I came to France, these are the last words my grandfather told me: ‘If you don’t want to go to France and get a better life, you’d better not come back to Fiji.’ So every day at training I’d think of what he told me.

“There was also a Fijian guy in the same section as me. His name is Joeli Navolo and sometimes he would just say to me, ‘We’ve got to finish this together. We didn’t come here for nothing.’ I never knew him in Fiji but we started on the same day and we’ve become best friends now. He helped me a lot because we’d share our difficulties and when I told him I’d stop this, he would encourage me a lot.

“We had to finish this together.”

French Foreign Legion

Pass it on: In action in Sydney earlier this year (Getty Images)

Life at this point was very different from scampering around after his younger brother and two kid sisters. There had been school rugby (15s and sevens) to enjoy too, a love of his since he was seven. But he would not touch a ball for at least three years. Military life was full-on enough and there were tours to come.

Veredamu would be sent to Mali and Djibouti. He says he did not see a lot of action but that life was still “stressful”, before adding: “You didn’t ever know if you were going to get shot.

“You don’t know if you’re going to stay alive or be dead. When you go on a tour it’s a mission – you must go for it, it’s in your contract. You’ve got to complete the mission. You tell yourself you’re here to help the people, not just to shoot them! They are humans like us.”

So with all of the above you can understand the need to escape back into rugby. And although it took a little cajoling from former Fiji centre Julian Vulakoro to get him to play with the Nimes side he was helping out, the legionnaire relished taking back his weekends. It was the joy of simply playing again.

French Foreign Legion

Selfie time: Celebrating with fans on the sevens circuit (Getty Images)

Soon though, the French army rugby set-up saw what he was doing and asked him if he would give them a go. It was at a sevens services tournament, Veredamu says, that he stood out enough to be spotted elsewhere.

On the following Monday, Veredamu received a call from the France sevens team manager. He felt shock. At first he thought it was a joke. He had gotten back into the game for enjoyment, but suddenly he was giddy with uncertainty as he thought of heading to his first national training session.

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It was at this training he was told to get a French passport and after the army obliged him, he would go on to wear Bleu for the first time, in 2017. When he told his parents, he has no issue explaining, he was “lost in tears”.

Described by coach Ben Ryan, who has worked with France Sevens as a consultant, as “a brilliant guy on every level”, Veredamu has rocked events. He has the option, he has suggested in the past, of one day returning to the military. Yet his standard of play has kept climbing. The touching thing is that the back-row seems shocked at what he has achieved on the field so far.

It has taken him some time to get to this point but his place has been earned the hard way.

Now, on the eve of the Top 14 kicking in again, he will be putting his hand up for selection for Les Jaunards. When Covid-19 laid waste to the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, French national players were urged to seek opportunities in 15s to keep sharp while uncertainty reigns elsewhere. In a frenzied fortnight, Veredamu went from hearing this to accepting a four-month deal in the Auvergne.

“Here I’m really enjoying myself,” Veredamu says of life with Clermont. “In the morning at training your team-mates are laughing and enjoying themselves. In the army there’s good moments but you don’t know if you’ll be alive or dead, so here it’s really like holidays!

“I’m really excited. At a club like Clermont who’ve done so well over the last few years, to be here with the big boys… I’m happy.

French Foreign Legion

Powerful ally: Clermont and Fiji flanker Peceli Yato (Getty Images)

“There’s a lot of great players (in the back row), like (Arthur) Iturria, Fritz Lee, Peceli Yato, Judicaël Cancoriet… A lot of talent, a lot of big boys, so many of them in the French team. Training with well-known rugby names motivates me to work hard, train hard.

“For the last three years I’ve not played back-row so I’ve got to look at a lot of stuff, some video, training. For the four months I will try to do my best and dig in. Clermont are already there – me, I’m new here so I’m just going to do my best in training and see if I get a chance and if I can take my chance.”

With a pioneering spirit and gritted teeth, Veredamu has come through tours of differing natures. He may not tell us to expect much, but his story to date suggests that the next few months in yellow will at the very least be lively.

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