Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Victor Vito: More brain than brawn

New Zealand All Blacks loose forward Victor Vito, during the press conference at their hotel Pennyhill Park, Bagshot, Surrey, London, in lead up to the Rugby World Cup Final. Photo / Brett Phibbs.
New Zealand All Blacks loose forward Victor Vito, during the press conference at their hotel Pennyhill Park, Bagshot, Surrey, London, in lead up to the Rugby World Cup Final. Photo / Brett Phibbs.

Victor Vito will play his 100th game for the Hurricanes tonight and most likely, given his form, be a central figure.

It will also be his last game for the Hurricanes as he's off to France. It could be a spectacular way to bow out if the Hurricanes can live up to their status as heavy favourites, beat the Lions and finally shake off the tag they have collected in conjunction with Wellington as giant bottlers when it comes to finals.

It could, also, to some measure, help Vito shake off a similarly unwanted tag that he too was never quite able to deliver on all that he promised.

Not everyone will remember that eight years ago, on the same ground he will end his New Zealand career, he started it with the sort of emphatic performance that earned him immediate comparisons with Jonah Lomu.

Vito shot to instant fame as a 20-year-old when he was the star of the 2008 Wellington Sevens. At 1.94m and 112kg it was easy to see why comparisons were made with Lomu especially as Vito was blessed with genuine pace, raw power and great handling skills.

New Zealand had found another incredible raw athlete and he was exactly the sort of player the All Blacks were always in the market for. By 2010, they had seen all they needed - Vito wasn't the finished article, but he'd produced enough in Super Rugby to convince the national selectors that they could add the last components to his game.

They had maybe over estimated Vito's readiness. When he was given his first start, against the Wallabies in Sydney, it didn't go well. He struggled to get involved and was guilty of staying locked to the scrum when the Wallabies attacked blind.

Australia scored the easiest try and all anyone could remember of Vito's first start was the giant mistake he made.

As it turned out, that came to be the story of Vito's career - he was never quite able to convert from being an incredible to athlete to being an incredible player.

The All Blacks wanted him to be like Jerome Kaino - aggressive, abrasive, physical and imposing. But Vito wasn't really that sort of person naturally. He didn't have the same natural confidence or instinct to hurt people the way Kaino did.

He didn't have the natural intimidation that was required for an All Black blindisde and while it possibly had nothing to do with anything, the fact Vito had attended Wellington's elite private school, Scot's College, on scholarship and had been a top class student, seemed to confirm the perception that he just wasn't cut out for the role.

He was seen as an intellectual - too clever to bash himself up in the most unforgiving way.

Vito found it hard to tap into his inner mongrel and it was all too easy to create this stereotype of a player who was more brain than brawn - that he didn't have the same intrinsic desire as Kaino to make his presence felt. Vito was equipped to do it - he was big enough, but it wasn't in his nature to be intimidating. He was given enough chances to prove everyone wrong, but he simply couldn't play with the dynamisim, aggression and impact towin himself a regular starting place.

In 2012 when Kaino headed off to Japan, Vito was picked at blindside for the first test of the year against Ireland. It was a huge opportunity for him to finally establish himself and speaking before that test in Auckland, he said: "I have been one of those fringe All Blacks who has come in and out. Last year was actually my first full year as an All Black - before then I was pretty erratic - in and out and that pretty much sums up where I have been.

Delivering in patches - just not quite delivering when I got my opportunity.

"What I have delivered is actually what my career has shown - good in patches but now I want to focus and make sure every time I get a chance out there I am clear - it is just tackle hard, run hard and if you get the chance - clean some guys out. I have to de-clutter my mind. I have had a problem with that in the past - sometimes people in the past have said you are intellectual blah, blah, blah ... but that can work against you as well in a team like this where all they expect of you is that you will do one job."

If he's honest, Vito has only managed to de-clutter his mind in the last 18 months. At last year's World Cup he made consistently good cameo appearances off the bench and this year, finally, he's been the player - or at least close to - many felt he was going to be.

The big difference is the length of time he stays on his feet after the initial collision when he's ball carrying. He doesn't go down as quickly as he once did and as a result he's been able to drive the Hurricanes over the gainline on those occasions when they have needed a small miracle.

His tackling has come up to a new level, too. He's more punishing and explosive - a sign of his age and related confidence most likely.

Both of which factors mean he has been a critical component of the Hurricanes' surge in the last two months. Ardie Savea wouldn't have been able toroam as wide as he has without the crunch work of Vito.

The Hurricanes wouldn't have held out defensively as long as they have - it has been 221 minutes of game time since they conceded a try - without the dominant tackles made by Vito. And they wouldn't be coming into the final with the confidence they are were it not for the transition Vito has made from great athlete to good player.

There's no doubt a piece of Vito and probably All Blacks coach Steve Hansen that is wondering why he is leaving now that he's finally made good on his potential.

But a bigger piece will be just happy that he's got the chance to sign off in New Zealand as a champion.

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