Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

All Blacks: Vito's chance to step up

As we sat with Cory Jane discussing the wing options on the All Black tour, the name Victor Vito was thrown into the conversation.

Quick as one of his ratatat-tat sidesteps, Jane came back: "He's got to learn to play flanker first," he giggled, along with the rest of us.

It was just a throwaway line and no malice intended at all.

But there is an underlying truth in Jane's comment. Vito remains an unproven competitor in the All Black jersey.

A wondrous talent, a player of enormous potential, but someone who is yet to flower on the international stage.

He has played 17 tests since being called to international work three years ago, yet Victor Vasefafanua Vito still remains a prospect.

He has a fearsome physique and can scatter opponents with his frame or his defensive technique. He has all the attributes to back up Kieran Read at No8, make it his job for a day, like tonight when he turns out against Scotland, or give the blindside flanker role a real tune-up.

He is in a three-way battle there with the whippet skills of Adam Thomson, the changing dynamics of Liam Messam's play and his own multi-dimensional abilities.

If anyone looks a ready-made replacement for Jerome Kaino, it's Vito.

The problem is the looks need a hard edge, the steel spine and unrelenting understanding and drive to claim the role and nail it.

It took Kaino some time and an assortment of injuries to sort that out until he flowered in his latter seasons with the All Blacks.

His departure for Japan has reopened the arguments about who is best suited for the black No6 uniform.

Vito is in the boot of the scrum tomorrow at Murrayfield but his skills also lend themselves to work on the blindside.

His career has advanced sharply since his days at Scots College, then his starring work at sevens before his elevation to the broader game with Wellington, the Hurricanes and the All Blacks.

In among that, Vito has an Bachelor of Arts degree but progress has stalled on his law papers. Now is the time for him to focus on rugby.

"The journey here has been somewhat challenging," he said. "I have been in and out of teams, played three Tri Nations championships, but never been on an end-of-year tour before.

"This is my first full year as an All Black and for me, that is a relief and a big advance mentally. It is a big tick for me and my own goals because I still feel even though I have played a full year, I have so many goals to achieve in this team."

At last Vito is feeling a bit more at ease in the team, he has got over the hump of wondering whether he belongs, whether his team-mates believe he should be part of the squad.

Before last year's World Cup, he still felt diffident about asking senior men such as Richie McCaw or Daniel Carter for explanations about a variety of topics.

Being around those men for two months of tournament action was a huge boost for Vito. He has continued learning this season with his selection for the June internationals, Rugby Championship and now the tour to Europe.

Coaching continuity with Steve Hansen has also made Vito feel more secure. He had made a start because of his versatility and ability to cover the entire back row but being a back-up for those roles had a replacement connotation for the rest of your career.

That was not Vito's target.

"I think the black jersey demands more of you than just someone who comes on in the final 10 minutes of every game. To make my legacy, I would love to see myself in the starting jersey, whether that is six or eight."

"Lately it has been a mental learning curve to make sure I know the game plan well, in and out. I have changed this year to do the homework really well early on and if I don't understand something, make sure I ask someone.

"I have to learn why we are doing something. I know where we are going but not why sometimes and that is when you have to ask."

If anything, as part of his developing experience, Vito thinks he has been guilty of over-analysing his rugby, taking it apart rather than looking at his overall impact.

Everyone picked in the All Backs knows how to play rugby otherwise they would not have been chosen.

The next learning blocks about why they were playing a certain way will be the critical factor in Vito's - and the All Blacks' - development.

- Herald on Sunday

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