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'He was very bad at rugby': New France wing Gabin Villiere was written off as an 18-year-old

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images

Ben Mercer, the English rugby player who last year published a best-selling book on his adventures in the lower French leagues with Rouen, has tweeted an inspiring story about the great lengths taken by Gabin Villiere to become talented enough to play for France.


Villiere, who made a try-scoring Test debut in November against Italy and then featured in the Autumn Nations Cup final versus England at Twickenham, has been chosen on the wing by Fabien Galthie for his first Guinness Six Nations start when France take on the Azzurri on Saturday in the opening match of the 2021 championship. 

The finisher came to prominence in recent years with Toulon but Mercer, a former teammate of Villiere at Rouen, has revealed the extent of the work the now 25-year-old had to put in to develop his game as he initially wasn’t very good at it.  

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Jonny Wilkinson and Gregor Townsend guest on RugbyPass All Access ahead of Saturday’s Calcutta Cup clash
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Jonny Wilkinson and Gregor Townsend guest on RugbyPass All Access ahead of Saturday’s Calcutta Cup clash

Mercer, whose book ‘Fringes – Life on the Edge of Professional Rugby’ gave a compelling account of life down the ranks in France, now writes a series of daily mini-essays on social media and his piece on Villiere should serve as an inspiration to any teenager struggling with his rugby skills to never give up. 

Villiere was playing at Federale 1 level as recently as May 2019 with Rouen before Toulon signed him, but there was a considerable time when his French lower league club didn’t think he had the tools to become a success and make it at that level, never mind go on and star in the Top 14 and for France.  

“We had a teammate at Rouen who was very bad at rugby,” wrote the now-retired Mercer. “He played scrum-half and wore a scrum cap. Never a good sign. He had enormous hands that got in the way when he tried to pass and enormous feet that shanked box kicks everywhere but straight down the field. 


“He belonged in the B team and even then he belonged on the bench. He was already 18 and was unlikely to improve very much. One day he came off the bench and came alive running with the ball. He still couldn’t pass but he could run a bit. He moved to centre where he could run some more. 

“In the meantime, he was in the gym every day. He was still skinny and awkward but he was getting stronger and quicker every month. He was still bad but he kept working on his game. After a year he was playing for the B team in the centre. 

“The year after he scored every time he played for the B team and sometimes played for the first team. The year after that he moved to the wing and began to score tries for the first team. He didn’t stop scoring them. The year after he played for the national 7s team. The year after he signed for one of the biggest teams in the country. The year after that he got picked for the national team. 

“The big hands that couldn’t pass now meant he could hand people off, steal the ball in the ruck and score tries one-handed. His big feet still didn’t help him kick but they powered him around the field, now one of the fittest, fastest and most elusive players, 


“This weekend Gabin Villiere is starting on the wing for France in the Six Nations. He could have given up at any point. No one believed in him. Now, I wouldn’t bet against him.”



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