IRANZ Insight: IRANZ Graduate Vaea Fifita lights up the Rugby Championship

The Rugby Championship is clearly the best rugby competition in the world. Could England or Ireland handle this level of physicality, skilful continuity and speed from one end of the field to the other? No. They couldn’t.

Vaea Fifita attended our High Performance Players Course in 2012. Five years later, he made his All Blacks debut against Samoa at Eden Park
Vaea Fifita

I was pleased to see assistant referee, Nigel Owens, still in this part of the world. Southern Hemisphere refereeing has been educational for him. His performance during the All Blacks vs Springbok match was proof of this and hopefully, he will introduce this less authoritarian style to the North.

Michael Cheika has done a good job with the Wallabies and has developed a world class team. Some new faces, some shortcomings, but the Aussies are now a resilient, skilful and united squad. They pushed the ABs to the last minute and resolutely withstood the Springbok onslaught. Many Wallaby teams would have crumbled, but not Michael Hooper and his boys. They may lack the depth of the ABs and the Boks, but their first 18 players are those team’s equals for sure.

I was amazed to hear Alistair Coetzee in the pre-match interview admit there were difficulties in coaching a team in, “transition”. I’m not sure what he meant, but knowing South Africa a bit, and the pressure their coaches are always under, transition probably means replacing the white players with black or coloured players.

How stupid is that? The traditional strength of the Boks, and this team is no different, is built around the sheer physicality and brutal approach of the Afrikaners. I chuckled when that magnificent Bok captain and talisman, Eben Etzebeth, looked sideways at the interviewer in the post-match interview when he asked, “I guess you would take a draw away from home”?

“We play to win…” was Etzebeth’s classic response. Surprise, surprise!!

On Saturday, in the rain at New Plymouth, Argentina played out of their skins – they were leading with 20 minutes to go. But in trademark fashion, the ABs responded by scoring a superb try through Vaea Fifita. Down to 14 men, they moved the ball into space and found one of the best rugby athletes of the modern era. Here is a player with startling explosive speed for a big man.

When Vaea attended the High Performance Players Course, he was timed at 4.99 seconds for the standing 40 metres. At 1.96 m and 107 kg, that’s bloody quick. Now at 116 kg, he has lost none of his pace as the Puma’s wing and stranded cover defence found out. His try ignited the ABs, who went on to finish with 6 tries to 1.

I’m quite sure the AB selectors have not yet settled on their top 15 players. Since losing among others, McCaw, Carter, Smith and Nonu, they still have some rebuilding to do. Last week there were 6 changes. Unusual for an AB side known for its consistency. However, I expect a similar number of changes this week. I expect to see Aaron Smith, Sam Whitelock, Wyatt Crocket, Sam Cane, Ryan Crotty, Reiko Loane and possibly Liam Squire.

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