Once there was Lomu; now there is Fifita!
Last year Vaea Fifita hurdled clean over a player in a provincial game. This past Saturday he shook the world with a barnstorming 40-metre run in for a try. Jamie Wall was there to see both.
If you've ever come to Auckland, you'll know about the traffic. It dominates everything, whether it's simply getting work or popping up as idle small talk in any sort of social situation. It's so bad it often dictates weighing up if it's even worth leaving your house, and the unlikely event of getting somewhere on the motorway quicker than you think is a cause for celebratory Facebook post.
The night Counties-Manukau hosted Wellington in the Mitre 10 Cup last year was, unfortunately, not one of those times. My friend and I found ourselves gridlocked, bumper to bumper straight after work as we made our journey from the city to Eco Light Stadium in Pukekohe.
We'd left at 5. There was no guarantee that the 40 kilometres journey would be over by the time the game was scheduled to start at 7:35.
While our bladders were heaving as we crawled along the motorway, this wasn't the most pain the Wellington rugby team had put Chris and I through. We had the misfortune of being teenage fans throughout the 1990's, when a mid-table finish was pretty much guaranteed. However, the 2015 season made that time seem like a distant, happy memory – Wellington lost 10 games in a row.
We lived in Auckland now, so our trip to Pukekohe was the only chance we'd have to watch our freshly relegated home team in person. They were battling it out with a side they used to crush regularly, even back when we had a whole stand to ourselves at Athletic Park. We weren't expecting much, but it turned out our arduous drive put us in place to see Vaea Fifita announce himself to the rugby world.
We made it to the ground just in time for kickoff, and had spent most of the first half discussing options for a better Auckland transit system when this happened:
It looked impressive in real life, even though we were over the other side of the field from where it happened. It wasn't until the replay went up on the big screen that everyone really saw how amazing his hurdle of Counties first five Piers Francis really was, with the home crowd gasping in amazement.
We forgot about the traffic, Wellington's horrible record and the meagre selection of food available at Eco Light Stadium. Vaea Fifita had just reignited our passion for domestic rugby. We went from being cynics laughing about how attached we were to such a disappointing team as youngsters to acting like we were impressionable kids back at Athletic Park.
The game ended up being a classic, with Jackson Garden-Bachop kicking a 50 metre penalty to win the game for Wellington. The team was presented with the Jonah Lomu trophy, fittingly huge and difficult to handle.
We spent the much less time-consuming drive back marvelling at what we'd just seen, the likelihood of it making Sportcenter's Top 10 plays and a woefully tenuous story by me about how I'd been on the field for a similar incident in a lower grade club game.
Of course, it wasn't the first time Fifita had done something amazing on a rugby field. Since he'd arrived in Wellington from Tonga, he enjoyed a debut club season in which he scored 26 tries, including this one in which he ran the length of the field off the back of a scrum.
Anyone who saw any of that knew he was something special, now we were in the know by virtue of seeing his ridiculous tackle evasion with our own eyes. Since then, whenever he's done anything remotely impressive, Chris and I message each other applauding the progress of ‘our guy'
Since then, he had a strong season for the Hurricanes and it was little surprise when he was called into the All Blacks in June for his test debut against Manu Samoa. He was uncharacteristically talked up by the All Black coaching staff, a major departure from the usually careful introduction to a starting spot via the reserves bench that All Blacks usually get.
If the hurdle got everyone's interest, Fifita's stunning 40 metre run in for a try against the Pumas on Saturday got their attention. I was there for that too, in a much larger crowd than the one in Pukekohe a year ago. Up until then the crowd was getting restless as the All Blacks had been yet to stamp their authority on the game, the roar that went up as Fifita cut a swathe of destruction down the sideline was one of relief as well as sheer exhilaration.
He now finds himself in a very interesting battle with Liam Squire and Jerome Kaino for the All Blacks' number six jersey – with Squire being the talk of the town a few weeks ago after his display in Sydney and Kaino's continued absence raising questions about whether he'll ever return.
Vaea Fifita cut a huge but incredibly shy figure on Saturday night after the test as the media huddled around him post game. The top button of his dress shirt wasn't done up, probably because it couldn't fit around his huge neck. Dane Coles stood beside him as the reporters asked Fifita about his memorable debut, offering support to a teammate clearly still coming to terms with the amount of scrutiny he'd be under from now on.
His answers were in brief, broken English. Every soundbite that's come out of the All Black camp regarding him has included the fact that he doesn't talk much anyway.
It didn't matter. What he's doing on the field is speaking volumes.
By Jamie Wall