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Cody Vai's journey to All Blacks Sevens debut at 18 to making the NZ U20 squad

By Adam Julian
Cody Vai of New Zealand walks onto the field before the final on the third day of the Hong Kong Sevens rugby tournament on April 2, 2023. (Photo by ISAAC LAWRENCE / AFP)

Cody Vai was only two years old when Tim Mikkelson made his debut for the All Black Sevens in 2007. Last night when Mikkelson helped New Zealand to a 14th World Series title there was no one cheering more loudly than Vai.

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An unprecedented injury crisis prior to the Hong Kong Sevens in April ruled out Andrew Knewstubb, Moses Leo, Payton Spencer, Roderick Solo, Sam Dickson, Scott Curry, Tim Mikkelson, Tone Ng Shiu, Joe Webber, and Regan Ware handing Vai his international debut at 18.

No one was more accommodating to the rookie than Mikkelson who celebrated his 100th tournament in Toulouse.

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‘Tim is a legend. I’ve grown up watching him. To be training with him is surreal. Watching the finals was scary but I had faith in the boys,” Vai told RugbyPass.

In the semi-final against France, Mikkelson made two heroic plays which won the game and secured World Series honours. Down 14-12 the Waikato winger created a try for Brady Rush with a chest pass in the presence of two defenders.

Moments later he snatched an intercept with the last play of the game facing a four-on-one overlap, and a slender 19-14 advantage, was terminal for the hosts’ prospects.

“Far, how did he do that? It was amazing,” Vai marvelled.

“The All Black Sevens are like a family. When I got the call up the older boys encouraged me to play my game and be myself.”

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“Roderick Solo is my flatmate with a few of the other boys. We have movie nights and are tight-knit. He’ll be going on about his winning try forever which will be annoying, but honestly, it’s so cool.”

New Zealand beat Argentina 24-19 in the Cup final with Solo scoring the winning try with the first touch in extra-time. They trailed 19-7 at half-time.

Vai was training with the Chiefs Under 20s when he was summoned to National Sevens duty. He will be fully contracted next year. His debut was a bolt from the blue in Hong Kong.

“I was supposed to be 14th man but when Moses Leo got injured, I got my shot,” he said.

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“Hong Kong was amazing, so many big buildings, crazy busy, and the atmosphere was unreal.

“I roomed with Dylan Collier who was nice and gave me lots of advice. We Polly boys tend to stick tight. Faith and family are everything to us.

“In sevens I play on the wing and back my pace. The more game time I got, the more confident I felt.”

In Hong Kong, Vai took part in every match and scored a vital try in the 24-17 victory against Fiji in the Cup final. A week later he was a strong contributor at the Singapore Sevens helping New Zealand capture that title for the first time in 18 years.

He is unbeaten in a dozen matches with the All Black Sevens and has scored four tries.

“Singapore was really hot. Thank goodness for the AC. The boys had to dig deep to get the job done.”

It was perhaps inventible that Vai would follow a rugby pathway. His father Kitiona Nanai Vai was a Manu Samoa international who played in the famous 1991 World Cup team.

His brother Melani Nanai is a flying winger who played 64 games for the Blues while one of Cody’s flatmates is his All Black Sevens brother Kitiona Vai.

His sister Corina played in the Farah Palmer Cup for the Auckland Storm.

Cody attended De La Salle College in Auckland and made the First XV in Year 11. He took a scholarship to St Peter’s Cambridge in 2021, a decision he credits with providing greater opportunities and helping him get fitter with access to a nearby gym every day.

At centre, Vai helped St Peter’s to credible third and fifth places finishes in the fiercely competitive Central North Island Competition.

He made the New Zealand Secondary Schools rep side as a winger and started in their 27-25 win over the Maori Under 18s in Hamilton.

Four days later he came off the bench and scored two tries in a commanding 67-15 thrashing of Fiji Schools. Vai won Allan Family Trophy for Victor Ludorum Sportsman of the Year at St Peter’s.

“St Peter’s was a big school. I needed a bike to get around. The 1A competition was harder physically but CNI was good too, and my schoolwork was better at St Peter’s.”

Vai has been named in the New Zealand Under 20s wider training group, coached by All Black Sevens mentor Clark Laidlaw, for the upcoming two-test series against Australia.

The ‘Baby Blacks’ go into this camp this weekend ahead of fixtures on May 29 and June 4 in Wellington.

“I know a few of the boys in the team especially those from Sevens. I can’t wait to hook up with the boys. Aussie will be tough, but we’ve got some awesome talent.”

New Zealand has won the World Under 20 Championships six times since its inception in 2008 with its most recent success in 2017. France is twice reigning champions.

Eight players will be cut from the existing squad of 38 for the World Championships in South Africa in June and July.

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Flankly 2 hours ago
Resilient Irish will test Springboks despite provincial setbacks

The Bok kryptonite is complacency. How did they lose to Japan in 2015, or to Italy in 2016? There are plenty of less dramatic examples. They often boil down to the Boks dialing back their focus and intensity, presuming they can win with less than 100% commitment. This can be true of most teams, but there is a reason that the Boks are prone to it. It boils down to the Bok game plan being predicated on intensity. The game plan works because of the relentless and suffocating pressure that they apply. They don’t allow the opponent to control the game, and they pounce on any mistake. It works fantastically, but it is extremely demanding on the Bok players to pull it off. And the problem is that it stops working if you execute at anything less than full throttle. Complacency kills the Boks because it can lead to them playing at 97% and getting embarrassed. So the Bulls/Leinster result is dangerous. It’s exactly what is needed to introduce that hint of over-confidence. Rassie needs to remind the team of the RWC pool game, and of the fact that Ireland have won 8 of the 12 games between the teams in the last 20 years. And of course the Leinster result also means that Ireland have a point to prove. Comments like “a club team beating a test team” will be pasted on the changing room walls. They will be out to prove that the result of the RWC game truly reflects the pecking order between the teams. The Boks can win these games, but, as always, they need to avoid the kryptonite.

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