Vaea Fifita was always liable to cause excitement in Coventry after it was confirmed he would join Wasps this summer, but Jimmy Gopperth perhaps didn’t expect the new arrival to be such a hit.
While Fifita, 29, is only at the beginning of his Wasps career, 38-year-old Gopperth has fielded questions regarding his retirement, though he says there’s “no chance” that will happen soon.
The Kiwi has had only a handful of weeks to get acquainted with his compatriot as team-mates, but Gopperth appeared stunned at just how physically impressive Fifita has been thus far.
“Vaea is an athlete, a proper athlete,” the veteran said.
“Big, strong, powerful, fast. He is very good with the ball in hand. He is very tall so his off-loading game is really, really special. It’s a case of when he has got the ball something is going to happen, so the guys are just trying to read him and getting on his opportunities so he can create.
“He is going to add another dimension to our ball carrying and defensively he has already put a few good shots in during training.
“He fits our mould really well as being physical but yet very sort of very agile, you can play him on the edges or you can play him in the middle. But from what everyone has seen of him so far he is an All Black and you can see why.”
Fifita has fellow All Blacks alumni at Wasps including Jeffery Toomaga-Allen and Malakai Fekitoa, the latter of whom was—like him—born in Tonga before representing his adopted nation.
Fellow back-rower Brad Shields is another close link given he was born in New Zealand and played there until joining Wasps in 2018, going on to earn eight caps for England to date.
There’s little chance of Fifita following the same route, not least because he already has significant experience representing the All Blacks.
A 2016 Super Rugby champion with the Hurricanes, 6’5” Fifita will be one new component in an improved Wasps pack, buoyed by Nizaam Carr’s return from the Bulls in South Africa.
Fifita made 58 appearances for the Hurricanes and has impressed early on at Wasps, where he’ll offer considerable support in both the back-row and at lock:
New coach Lee Blackett will also be eager to have star flanker Jack Willis back available following a lengthy knee injury, complementing the likes of Shields, Thomas Young and captain Joe Launchbury.
Gopperth’s praise for Fifita is exactly the kind of reaction the new signing will have hoped for at the Coventry Building Society Arena, where Wasps are set to open their season on September 25.
Blackett’s men face a ‘bye’ during the first round of the league campaign before opening the season at home to Bristol Bears, providing Fifita with a stiff test in what should be his Premiership debut.