Given he didn’t even have a Super Rugby contract while New Zealand was in lockdown due to COVID-19, very few pundits expected the young second-rower to earn a national call-up.
However, a slew of injuries paved the way for Vaa’i to be called into the Chiefs squad for Super Rugby Aotearoa, and his impressive performances there were enough to win selection for the North Island in the North vs South match.
Earning a starting role alongside his childhood idol Patrick Tuipulotu, Vaa’i played with enough conviction in that match to convince Foster and his fellow selectors to hand him a place in the national squad.
His rapid rise from Super Rugby obscurity to becoming a member of the All Blacks in the space of about three months took many by surprise, none more so than Vaa’i and his family.
Speaking exclusively to The XV, the 2019 New Zealand U20 representative recounted how he was left “speechless” after he received the call that confirmed his selection, and how he shared his moment of joy with North Island roommate Beauden Barrett.
“My phone call came five minutes after my alarm so I was probably one of the lucky guys that got my call pretty early, I wasn’t really nervous for that long at all,” Vaa’i said.
“I received the phone call at 7:30am from the manager and to hear him say that I made the All Blacks, there were so many emotions going through my head. The only thing I could say to him was ‘Oh, true?’. He was like, ‘Yeah mate, you’ve made the All Blacks’ and I was just like, ‘Oh, thank you, thank you.’ I was just speechless, I didn’t know what to say when he said that, to be honest.
“I think I woke up [roommate] Beauden Barrett when I received the phone call too. He knew the phone call was coming but I think he was still sleeping so I got up to go outside to receive the phone call and then I think I woke him up.
“After his phone call, he asked me if I had good news or bad news, so I told him I had good news and he was just so stoked for me to make it into the team.”
Vaa’i also lifted the lid on the viral video that emerged shortly after the squad announcement where he and his family burst into tears when he let them know the news.
“I rang my old man earlier just to say happy Father’s Day and stuff, just to let him know we’d be finding out that day if we’d made the All Blacks or not. He just said that whatever happens, he still loved me and stuff,” he told The XV.
“After that, I got the phone call, so I messaged one of my cousins to round up the whole family, just so I could say thank you for the support the night before for the North and South game. I FaceTimed my family and they were all there and I thought it was going to be easy just saying that I’d made the All Blacks but then all the emotions and stuff all came in and took the best of me. It just all went from there.
“My family have always been there on the sideline supporting me since I was playing at school. I’ve got six sisters and all my cousins are pretty much my siblings as well, we all grew up together. To see them all cry, I was just so blessed to see that their sacrifices were all worth it.”
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now