Old-hand Vagana tempers the Kiwis' Warrior heart

Dave Hadfield
Friday 24 January 2014 05:20
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There is a subtle difference between the current New Zealand tour and those of the past. Where recent parties have been liberally sprinkled with players familiar to British supporters from stints in this country, there is just one returnee in the group who left Auckland two weeks ago and are now preparing for the three-Test series against Great Britain. But if that puts a burden of extra responsibility on the shoulders of Nigel Vagana, it is not showing yet.

Vagana spent a season at Warrington in 1997 – he was the one real success to come out of a Polynesian invasion of that club, with his haul of 22 tries in 30 games being the best in Super League that season – but it is since returning to the southern hemisphere that he has blossomed into one of the world's most dangerous centres.

"I enjoyed my time at Warrington – I bumped into Paul Cullen the other day – but we were battling against relegation," he says. "Playing in Sydney for Bulldogs has been like the other end of the scale – a whole different game.

In his two seasons with Canterbury, who signed him from what was then the Auckland Warriors, he has become the most potent try-scorer in the National Rugby League, but there has been a down-side – one which has left him more determined than ever to make his mark on this tour.

Despite leading the NRL by the proverbial country mile, the Bulldogs' breach of the salary cap saw them docked almost all of their competition points and placed bottom. It is the equivalent of Arsenal suddenly being shoved behind Bolton Wanderers and something Vagana describes, with commendable restraint, as "a bit of a shame".

He adds: "We worked so hard all year and some guys in the office made a mistake for which the players got punished. We've moved on from it now. We've all signed on again for next year and we'll have to put it right then. For me, it's lucky I'm involved in this tour, because it takes my mind off what's happened."

Vagana has had a special role to play in the opening stages of the tour. At Hull in the opening match on Tuesday night, he was – apart from Castleford's Michael Smith – the only Kiwi with any extensive experience of British conditions and, particularly relevant that night, the atmosphere of British grounds. "The coach hasn't put any extra responsibility on me, but I'll take it on board anyway," he says. "I'll do what I can to help the team out."

Vagana could turn out to have been part of the last great influx of New Zealanders into the game here. Circumstances back home have changed radically. "Because the New Zealand Warriors have been going so well, a lot of players now have the ambition to play for them, rather than following careers overseas."

There are so many Warriors on this tour that there might be a risk of the squad splitting into two camps – the Warriors and the rest, including those, like Vagana, who play for Australian clubs. He dismisses the notion. "From the outside, it could look that way, but there's nothing like that. Everyone gets on like a house on fire," he says.

Surrounded by talented, but slightly raw, young Warriors in their early 20s, like Clinton Toopi, Francis Meli and Henry Fa'afili, Vagana is at 27, the elder statesman of the backline. Although he will be actively marshalling that new talent, one of his main functions involves making sure that all the Kiwis' flashy handling results in something tangible on the scoreboard by scoring the tries, of which he already has 10 in Tests.

He has an impressive repertoire of after-match celebrations and had his first chance to wheel one out at The Boulevard, when the Kiwis were patchy in the first half, but often brilliant in the second.

"Gary Freeman [the coach] has told us to enjoy ourselves, but a few of us have pushed the pass a bit too much. We have to time it a bit more, to get a feel for the game early on. We aren't going to stop enjoying ourselves; it's just a case of picking our time to do it."

With little in the way of reserve strength in the backs in his depleted party, Freeman will be asking a lot of players like Vagana, who admits that he is expecting a tough six weeks in Britain.

He still hopes to have time to look up some old friends, like Paul Sculthorpe, a team-mate at Warrington five years ago who has, like him, gone on from strength to strength since then. "I'll catch up with him after the Tests," he says. "He's been killing it since those days."

Vagana has even hinted at returning for a second stint in England, after the remaining year of his contract with Canterbury. But he would be coming back here as a very different proposition from the young man of 1997.

Then he was a player about to give a taste of his potential. Now, as Great Britain could find out in the Test series next month, he is something very close to the finished product.

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