At this time last year, very few people outside of Fiji knew who Vilimoni Botitu was.
The incisive centre was gearing up for the World Rugby U20 Trophy in Romania and proceeded to spearhead Fiji’s assault on the tournament, coming away with four wins from four, including a 58-8 demolition of Samoa in the final. He was pivotal in guiding the island nation back to the World Rugby U20 Championship for the 2019 edition of the competition.
Botitu graduated from the side at the conclusion of the tournament, so will not be representing Fiji in their first Championship in five years when it kicks off on Tuesday, but that doesn’t mean that 2018/19 hasn’t been extremely productive for the young back.
On Sunday night in Paris, he was crowned the DHL Impact Player on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, after having starred for Fiji in his debut season. In fact, he was also in the running for Rookie of the Year award on Sunday night, with his international teammate Meli Derenalagi pipping him to the post.
A cynic might suggest Botitu’s Impact Player award helped move the dial towards Derenalagi as Rookie of the Year, whilst optimists will insist that Derenalagi was himself a more than deserving recipient of the gong. Either way, both players have been fantastic for Fiji in their first seasons in the side, as has fellow debutant Aminiasi Tuimaba, who was also on the shortlist. Remarkably, all three rookies made the HSBC Dream Team.
Back to Botitu, though, and clubs across Europe should be beginning to circle for the 20-year-old, who is ready to make an impact in the 15-a-side game for the right team.
He is not the tallest player around and doesn’t have that characteristic length of many of Fiji’s star back line talents, but a lower centre of gravity positively influences his footwork, change of direction speed and ability to quickly accelerate through small holes or generate the power to break arm tackles.
Couple his speed and power with his offloading game and he is exactly the kind of player at second receiver who can get his side over the gain-line and expose teams beyond it, when they are scrambling in defence. His potency at doing that will also draw defenders’ attention and allow his fly-half to work around that, either linking directly with the outside centre, running the loop, taking a gap themselves or even popping the ball back inside to a scrum-half or forward.
He was doing that for Fiji in the Trophy last year, albeit against lesser opponents, and his time in sevens, especially with the industry and work rate he showed in the faster-paced format, has only seemed to make him a more complete rugby player.
He’s not the finished article by any means, with his passing and defensive positional work all likely to need a fair amount of work in a 15-a-side team, especially the slightly more structured sides of the northern hemisphere, but it is effort worth putting in when the payoff looks as promising as it does with Botitu. Even from his work in sevens alone this season, you can see the improvements he has made as a solo tackler, both in his ability to track ball-carriers and in his technique to bring them down without help.
The primary issue for Botitu will be one of eligibility.
Kiwi Super Rugby sides will be reluctant, with his time in the Fiji 7s squad having tied him internationally, whilst the same would be true of sides in Australia and South Africa. The Jaguares’ purpose is to keep Argentine talent in Argentina and the Sunwolves are operating on borrowed time, with the 2020 season set to be their last in Super Rugby.
In France, the changes to the rules around what constitutes a homegrown player has also seen the raiding of Fiji for young talents diminish, as well as a strong focus on selecting and bringing through French-qualified talent being established. In Ireland, Wales and Scotland, there are opportunities, although they are also limited due to Botitu’s inability to qualify for those nations on residency. That said, Scottish sides have recently shown a penchant for raw Fijian talent, and the success stories of Leone Nakarawa and Viliame Mata won’t be putting anyone off.
The two remaining bigger markets for Botitu’s services would be England and Japan, where he could provide plenty of impact for a Gallagher Premiership or Top League side, although the latter is again limited in the amount of playing opportunities they can offer non-Japan-qualified players. Italy, too, have shown good talent ID skills over the last few years and have not been afraid to take shots on non-Italy-qualified players.
Whether he’s spearheading a resurgence at Leicester Tigers, replacing Matt Toomua and helping get the most out of George Ford at fly-half, or filling the gap that Kalione Nasoko’s cancelled move to Edinburgh has created for Richard Cockerill, Botitu should be a director of rugby’s dream come true.
At his age and coming off a Fiji 7s contract, his salary expectations are going to fall well below what, frankly, less talented players in Europe, South Africa or Australasia would be demanding, not to mention the fact he is a player that has well over 10 years left in the game, barring any sort of horrific injury.
His stock will continue to rise in the shorter format of the game and he could well be eyeing up an Olympic medal in Tokyo next year, with Fiji already having secured qualification and set to defend the gold their earned back in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. That said, the opportunities for financial security – and sporting recognition – are greater in the 15-a-side game.
He’s not a sevens specialist who coaches may have questions over their ability to transition to the longer game, he displayed with Fiji U20s an ability to excel in that format, and his time in sevens hasn’t changed him, it’s simply added to his game and his experience as a professional sportsman.
In a sporting landscape where salary expectations rise each year, the contest for the top talents becomes more intense and Tier 1 players are regularly away from their clubs on international duty, training camps and rest weeks, the lure of a diamond in the rough like Botitu should be too appetising to turn away from.
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