Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Black Vito signs with French club

Victor Vito in action against Namibia at the Rugby World Cup. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Victor Vito in action against Namibia at the Rugby World Cup. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Victor Vito will head to France later this year with two World Cup winners' medals but also with a reputation as a gifted athlete who never quite evolved into the player he could have been.

His decision to sign with La Rochelle in France after eight seasons with the Hurricanes is both understandable and yet slightly perplexing.

Understandable because he's given himself ample time to achieve his goals. Understandable because for all that he's given and all that he's promised, he never managed to become a regular starting All Black - or even a regular squad player, bouncing in and out of the wider group.

Perhaps he was just supremely fortunate that he caught the last two World Cups on the upswing to give a skewed impression of his standing and ability.

A renowned scholar, Vito is also smart enough to see the emerging force that is Akira Ioane, the potential of Steven Luatua and the consistency of Brad Shields. The pathway to being a regular All Black looks as cluttered as ever and with the money in France being what it is, Vito has been persuaded that he's done as much as he can in New Zealand and it's time now to cater for his retirement fund.

But there is a counter view which says that Vito, after eight seasons of battling away, has finally come to grips with test football. After never quite being able to find his inner enforcer, Vito was starting to regularly impress off the bench with the All Blacks last year.

He ran better lines; stayed on his feet for longer; clattered into opponents that bit harder and defended with the touch of venom all the best blindsides need. The darker side of the game which had been a struggle for him, was suddenly more his bag and the promise that had been apparent since he stole the show at the 2008 Wellington Sevens was closer to being fulfilled.

Something had clicked - he looked like he suddenly believed in himself and knew he belonged in the All Blacks.

He's 28 now and maybe his best years are in front of him. He's finally learned how to get the best out of himself in the test arena and if he stayed, maybe he'd start to put real pressure on Jerome Kaino.

As Kaino himself has shown, it can take time for promising athletes to develop into bruising loose forwards. He was a raw-boned protégée in 2006 and not much further ahead three years later.

It was only by the tail end of 2010 that Kaino was consistently delivering and no doubt his best years have been 2011-2015. Kaino was 28 when he was New Zealand's outstanding player at the 2011 World Cup - the same age as Vito is now.

Could Vito push on over the next four years in the same way Kaino did? Had he chosen to stay in New Zealand, could Vito have become the same devastating force in test football?

It's a question that no doubt he asked himself repeatedly since he returned from London in November last year. The conclusion he reached, no doubt to the disappointment of All Black head coach Steve Hansen, was no, he couldn't.

"It's never easy to fight the ego and say no to the chance to represent your country but my young family trumps my ego any day, especially where there is a chance to provide them with a better future.

"It has been a roller coaster ride for me in the All Blacks being in out of the side for the past six seasons and if I'm being honest I probably wasn't mentally ready until 2014."

- NZ Herald

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