'I didn't even know who he was': The bolter set for his All Blacks debut
He was the surprise package of Ian Foster’s first All Blacks squad and has since handled his promotion with such aplomb that a test debut awaits this weekend. And yet, the best from Taranaki and Chiefs lock Tupou Vaa’i is unlikely to come against the Wallabies, but in the coming years as his physical and mental strength further matures.
The prestige attached to a maiden All Blacks call-up was there for all to see when Vaa’i shared the video of his family’s reaction to his selection in the national team – their pure joy evident in screams and tears that, in the age of social media, soon went viral.
Rather than be swept up in the emotion of it all, Vaa’i quickly knuckled down to work by helping Taranaki claim the Ranfurly Shield before settling into the All Blacks over the past two weeks.
The 20-year-old’s rapid rise – from labouring with his father in Auckland at the start of the year to preparing to play the Wallabies in Wellington on Sunday – is reflected in new teammate Codie Taylor’s admission, one shared by many avid New Zealand rugby followers.
“The harsh truth is I didn’t even know who he was at the start of the season but he’s come on in leaps and bounds with the Chiefs and now he gets the chance to pull on a black jersey at some stage which is pretty cool,” Taylor said.
“You’ve seen him run around he’s not the smallest bloke – he’s got that Patrick Tuipulotu size about him and presence. He’s only 20 years old, that’s a bit scary. If that’s how big they’re getting at that age there’s no chance for us old boys.”
Comparisons to Tuipulotu could be somewhat of a premonition in that it took the Blues captain the best part of five years to mould into the truly consistent world-class lock who now uses the full capacity of his size to devastating effect.
At 1.96 metres and 116kg, Vaa’i sure is an imposing specimen.
Quinten Strange’s ankle injury during the All Blacks camp in Hamilton last week near assures Vaa’i a position on the bench this week covering starting locks Sam Whitelock and Tuipulotu.
With Scott Barrett nearing a return from toe surgery, and Brodie Retallick due to home from Japan next year, Vaa’i is likely to slide down the pecking order but, for now, he’s already impressing those that matter most.
“He was one guy after being named that then went back to his province and went to another level,” All Blacks forwards coach John Plumtree enthused. “I was really excited about that. I watched him play at the New Zealand 20s and kept my eye on him and then the Chiefs gave him an opportunity and I connected with [Chiefs forwards coach] Neil Barnes and kept on watching him.
“You look at his physical profile he’s obviously a nice big boy and he loves learning as well. It doesn’t look like the environment intimidates him at all. He’s walking around with his chest out smiling so I think we’ve got a good one there.”
At the start of this new era, Vaa’i is exactly the prospect the All Blacks are keen to unearth.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 7, 2020
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