'It wasn't the way I wanted to move on but it just had to be...'
Telusa Veainu was enjoying an autumnal day off from Stade Francais last Wednesday when RugbyPass unwittingly took the pep from his step by mentioning over the phone the deflating news that had broken in England the day before. Wasps had provided a seriously disappointing medical bulletin on the status of Malakai Fekitoa, the former All Blacks midfielder who was recently able to change his Test XV allegiance to Tonga after representing their 7s side in June in the Olympic qualifier held in Monaco.
Rather than now giddily going on and playing for the Tongans in the upcoming internationals versus Scotland at Murrayfield and England at Twickenham, a shoulder dislocation has ruled out the 29-year-old who earned the last of his 24 All Blacks caps in 2017.
The revelation about Fekitoa had eluded Veainu, who had spent his Tuesday winding up his football-mad Stade teammates at training by claiming he was a Manchester City fan before that night’s clash with PSG at the Parc des Princes across the road from his current club’s Stade Jean-Bouin stadium.
“I’m not really a big football fan but I know boys at the club are big PSG fans. I was supporting Man City just to stir the pot a little bit. It’s the hottest ticket around town at the moment, the PSG ones,” he quipped at the start of the interview with RugbyPass.
Veainu went on to be playfully polite and well-spoken on a myriad of topics, even when it came it to reflections on his delicate contract rebel exit from Leicester in July 2020. However, the prognosis about Fekitoa now being unavailable for the internationals on October 30 and November 6 left him flustered. “Is he (out)? I didn’t even know that. Ah, f**k that… ah s**t!
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 28, 2021
“As soon as he qualified a lot of the boys sent him messages, ‘This is awesome’. It was just a good vibe. I spoke to some of the boys from the 7s and they were so happy to see him come back and to give back to Tonga. It was really good.”
It was 15 months ago when Veainu’s change of a different type of allegiance made headlines. Financially worried Leicester were demanding across the board salary cuts but the Tongan international, who had been in the East Midlands for five years, stuck to his guns along with Manu Tuilagi, Noel Reid, Greg Bateman and Kyle Eastmond by refusing to stay for less.
He’d nothing lined up when he took his brave stance, but it didn’t take long for his talent to find a suitable suitor in Stade Francais and a three-year deal was quickly agreed. Sweet. “At the time they [Leicester] did what was right for them in terms of the pandemic and I was doing what I needed to do for my family and to support them and that was the decision I had to make based on that.
“At the time I didn’t really have any options and it was just when things started to break down with Leicester and the news started to be published that Stade heard about it and came through. At the time all the clubs had finished all their signings and I was very fortunate to be picked up by Stade. I owe so much to Leicester and they will always be my team. It has a special place in my heart. It’s where everything took off for me and I’m always cheering the boys on, supporting them from afar.
“Welford Road is probably the best place I have played in front of fans. Every time I went out and played I just wanted to showcase myself, to put my best foot forward and it gave me a confidence and an arrogance that when I stepped out at the stadium I was never going to lose.
“But looking back at the decision I made, it was just the right one at the right time for me and it was probably the change that I needed. They were fine, they had Freddie Steward coming up as a young kid. He had all the potential and we knew he was going to go out and showcase it, so it was just a matter of time. For me, it was just the perfect time to move on. It wasn’t the way I wanted to move on but it just had to be.
“As a Pacific islander, your faith comes first and then your family and then it’s either football or food. That was part of the decision and the other one was just to try and experience something different. Experience a different culture. I’d been there for five seasons and just wanted to try something different.”
Paris is proving to be exactly that – very different in so many ways. To begin with, moving there in a pandemic wasn’t exactly ideal. “It was crazy,” he admitted. “It was pretty stressful on my partner and my daughter at the time, especially not being able to speak the language and coming here trying to settle in. The training was tough and we were all in little bubbles.”
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Stade eventually finished sixth in Veainu’s first season and while they are currently bottom following four defeats in their opening five games this term, the latest coming at Brive on Saturday, it is still very early days. “Top 14 is a long season and it’s definitely more about how you finish,” he explained. “It’s a marathon. For us it’s just focusing on what we are trying to do, trying to play some good footy, getting those combinations right and believing in our own ability.
“Gonzalo (Quesada) has been awesome. He has been all about getting to know the person, allowing individuals to express themselves when they go out on the pitch. He is also big on family and the off-field stuff. He has got a very simple game plan as well which I really love and enjoy playing. It worked for us last year and when we do things right we can punish some teams.
“I just like how the French embrace life,” continued Veainu. “Rugby can’t be everything to them. It’s about balance. They like to have a cigarette here and there, have wine with their lunch and all that stuff. It has definitely opened up my eyes. When I was at Leicester it was all about rugby, rugby, rugby. Even when you went home it was rugby, rugby. But here they are able to switch off and they are able to go and have a nice dinner together. It’s just different.
“When I first came here I thought, ‘No, this is the wrong way’. Then I realised there are more ways, different ways of skinning a cat. They have just got a different way of doing it. You think the French are unprofessional but they are not, they have just got their own way of dealing with how they play rugby and their approach to it. They are a lot more emotional. There is so much more passion in it, which is a bit more different to what I experienced at Leicester. It’s just crazy sometimes but it is just such a refreshing attitude on rugby and life as well.”
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Not since after the 2019 World Cup in Japan has Veainu made it back to Christchurch. Home is where the heart is, where the 30-year-old’s rugby story started in league before switching to union and accelerated. “I’m from a big family, one of eleven. A Christian family brought up in New Zealand, we didn’t have much. My parents were very hard workers, my dad worked two jobs to provide for us. I owe a lot to my parents for the sacrifices they made for me and the family… They watch my games, but Peppa Pig is dominating the TV back home at the moment. They are just more happy they have got grandkids.”
When Veainu started out it was with notions of being the league superstar. “I thought I was Benji Marshall but I was nothing like him and when I saw the rugby (union) boys getting really cool kit, I decided to switch. We were playing league on Sundays, rugby on Saturdays. I just played along with my friends, then started to make a few rep teams and that was it, I stuck at it.
“I still played league all the way up until I was 16, just dipping in and out, just keeping it quiet and not telling the rugby coaches about it. I was on a scholarship in my school so when they found out we had to stop and I wasn’t allowed to play anymore so I just had to focus on rugby.
“I’m not the type of person that gets down and would be gutted about things like that. It was, ‘Oh it was fun while it lasted’ and I moved on. At the time I was training in the academy at the Crusaders and then made New Zealand U17s. From then on that was when I was really thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I was so, so fortunate to be in the top 50 players in New Zealand’. Coming back from that camp I was on a high. I realised I could make a decent career out of this if I trained hard and put my head down.”
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It wasn’t enough, though. For sure he had the potential. Just look at his pedigree with the World Cup-winning Baby Blacks, scoring a hat-trick for New Zealand in the 2010 Junior World Cup final. However, Veainu couldn’t crack Super Rugby. Unfulfilled spells at the Highlanders and Crusaders led him to the Rebels, but even there it didn’t happen for him and by June 2015 he was considering his options outside the game. Then came a life-changing call from Tonga.
“I was sort of at rock bottom and then Tonga threw me the lifeline for the Pacific Nations Cup. I played a few games and the coach at the time asked me if I wanted to come to the World Cup. Obviously, they had a load of good wingers and full-backs at the time but I just said, ‘Yeah, why not, I’ll come along as baggage man’. Next thing you know I’m playing all of those games and I’m picked up from Leicester after that.
“In Melbourne, I didn’t get much game time. I was just doing a lot of training and playing club rugby. Really low in confidence because I wasn’t getting selected. I felt at the time I could offer something different but I wasn’t being used. I was still doing everything I could but I just wasn’t getting a crack. The coach at the time just wouldn’t give me a look in until everyone got injured pretty much.
“When I came back to New Zealand and I was, ‘Far out, I need to get a job’. I’d a few interests in rugby but at that point of time, I just wanted to be home with family, be surrounded by them and seeing them motivated me to get back into rugby and find the love for it and literally two, three weeks later I was at Tonga training. When I went to Tonga it felt, ‘This is where I belong’. Being back at home in the motherland and just seeing my people was awesome. It gave me such a refreshing perspective on rugby.”
— Leicester Tigers (@LeicesterTigers) October 28, 2015
It’s a perspective Veainu would love the global rugby authorities to appreciate and nourish rather than allow their reputation to be tarnished by embarrassments such as last July’s 16-try, 102-0 hammering by the All Blacks. It was never a fair fight, the result highlighting how difficult it is resources-wise for tier two countries such as Tonga to bridge the gap to the rugby elite.
“How long has this been going on for, and it’s the same for Fiji and Samoa. Fiji are a lot better now but there is just no fair game for us in the Pacific Island nations. They [New Zealand] asked us for a game but there were no MIQ [managed isolation] spots. Everything just seems to go against us.”
If there was one thing Veainu would change overnight it is the eligibility rules. The last rugby league World Cup demonstrated the positives that can materialise as a strengthened Tonga were transformed and packed out stadiums in New Zealand. “By being able to switch alliances you don’t know how much that impacts the young generation. Instead of wanting to play for the Kiwis they want to play for Tonga now and you have guys who have had one or two Tests for New Zealand or Australia, they can now offer their services to grow the game here in Tonga by playing for Tonga and bringing their high profile over.
“The Tonga fans don’t have much but they give their voices and literally would give you the shirt off their back. They just love rugby and rugby league. Can you imagine if Tonga was a tier-one nation? Oh my goodness! The towns would be painted red and there is a lot of support in New Zealand as well. We have had training in Auckland and there were a lot of supporters turning up, bringing us fresh watermelon, coconut juices and things like that. We just loved putting a smile on their faces.”
It’s two years now since Veainu earned the last of his twelve Test caps before the world ground to a halt, but he hopes to soon add to that tally with the upcoming games in Scotland and England as Toutai Kefu has been in touch. “I’ve spoken to him a few times. He is quite a bubbly guy and he is pretty happy. He just wants to get busy again. He is recovering (from being injured in a robbery at his home) and I’m really happy that he came through alright.
“I’m definitely putting my hand up to be involved in the game. I’m looking forward to it. I haven’t been able to play for Tonga in a long time due to the pandemic, so I can’t wait to see the boys again.”
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