Paul Eddison charts his journey from rotten scrum-half at Rouen to flying winger for France, through a spell on the sevens circuit

Gabin Villiere’s unbelievable rugby journey

“He’s one powerful hombre.” It’s exhausting to think about a much bigger praise from Shaun Edwards. The now France defence coach was describing winger Gabin Villiere, a participant who has had maybe probably the most unlikely path to the highest in a group that is filled with them.

At 26, Villiere is now one of many first names on Fabien Galthie’s group sheet and but this time three years in the past the best stage he had performed in 15s was the French third flight.

It took a whistlestop spell in sevens, an unlikely transfer to Toulon and a world pandemic for Villiere to get his shot at Check stage. However now the chance has offered itself, he has seized it with the outsized arms which have earned him the nickname ‘Frodo’ from his membership colleagues.

Wind the clock again to 2016 and it was below the tutelage of former England scrum-half Richard Hill at Rouen that Villiere went from being a second-team alternative scrum-half to ripping it up on the wing and notching 26 tries in 23 video games for the primary XV.

Ben Mercer, who got here by means of the academy in Tub and ended up enjoying alongside Villiere in Rouen, explains simply how outstanding his journey was.

“Firstly, nobody discouraged him however nobody inspired him both,” remembers Mercer, who has written of his experiences of the French decrease ranges in his ebook Fringes: Life on the Fringe of Skilled Rugby.

“It wasn’t like he was a severe rugby participant. He turned up each day, he was all the time on the abilities periods, within the gymnasium and did it for a few years with no proof of it going nicely. With the very best will on the planet, it’s not a High 14 group, it’s a Federale One group. However he was extremely persistent.

“There was a sport the primary yr I used to be there once I was damage and didn’t play. We went away to Arras and he was on the bench for the B group. He got here on at scrum-half and he by no means appeared good when he performed there. They did an 8-9-15 transfer and the No 8 flipped it to him. At that time you make your thoughts up what you’re going to do and as he wasn’t superb at passing he was all the time going to run however he truly appeared fairly pure, he had a little bit of zip about him.

“After the sport a bunch of us spoke to a number of the coaches and mentioned, ‘Gabin is de facto unhealthy at scrum-half however when he’s working with the ball, he appears to be like fairly harmful’. They listened to us however did nothing about it.

Gabin Villiere’s incredible rugby journey

Melvyn Jaminet and Gabin Villiere elevate the Six Nations trophy (Getty Photographs)

“I used to be there for 4 years and he went from the bench for the B group to beginning to being their greatest participant. By his fourth yr, he was enjoying within the centres for the primary group however not doing a lot. After a few video games I keep in mind approaching, it was mid-game and he moved out to the wing and scored twice, with one good end within the nook. Having scored twice, he began the subsequent sport on the wing and after that he didn’t look again.”

His exploits for Rouen caught the attention of then Dax coach Jerome Daret, who tried to persuade Villiere to go away his native Normandy for the South-West of France to no avail. When Daret was named head coach of the France Sevens group, he tried to pay money for Villiere as soon as once more, this time with extra success.

Whereas France Sevens have lengthy flattered to deceive, Villiere’s arrival coincided with an uptick in outcomes. Because it seems, it was no coincidence. His crowning second got here on the Hong Kong Sevens in 2019, when he was sensational as France reached the ultimate, to the purpose he was named Participant of the Event.

In doing so, he turned the primary Frenchman ever to attain the feat, following within the footsteps of the likes of David Campese, Jonah Lomu, Christian Cullen and, in fact, the incomparable Waisale Serevi, who did it 5 instances.

Former England Sevens skipper Rob Vickerman was commentating on the time and was blown away by Villiere. He says: “We did a little bit of digging once we had been on the market and one of many guys was in contact with Richard Hill. He mentioned to maintain a watch out for this Villiere child, he’s fairly particular. So that you do. After which because the match progressed, we thought he’s precisely what France want.

“The French usually frustrate me in sevens since you assume they need to be the proper mixture of aptitude and pace and sheer prowess, however the one time they’ve gained was my first match in 2005. The man who ran amok was Vincent Clerc. I used to be about 19 and questioned who the hell is that this man? He mainly gained the match for them (in Paris) by himself. It appeared like Villiere was of a really related ilk. He was wiry, abrasive, extremely match and simply didn’t appear to cease.

“I didn’t truly know he was a winger, I assumed he was extra of a scrum-half as a result of he was continually across the breakdown. That’s one thing you don’t typically see with the wingers. What stood out in sevens was his work-rate and that has come throughout to 15s.”

Like many, Vickerman anticipated Villiere to develop into a stalwart of the French Sevens set-up, however he was recalled to Rouen by Hill after which in Might 2019, a month after his Hong Kong exploits, Toulon got here calling. The place he had beforehand turned down Dax, there was no method Villiere was going to say no to the French giants.

His first season with them was minimize brief by the Covid-19 pandemic, however it additionally supplied him with a possibility that may not in any other case have come his method. When a club-versus-country dispute over the 2020 autumn schedule for les Bleus meant that no participant may play greater than three matches of the six that had been deliberate, Galthie discovered himself having to solid his web somewhat additional, with Villiere known as into motion.

His debut got here towards Italy in entrance of an empty Stade de France. When a lineout was stolen early within the second half and popped again to Villiere, he placed on the afterburners and seemed to be working at double pace in comparison with everybody else on his option to a debut attempt.

Every week later within the Autumn Nations Cup closing at Twickenham, when France’s third string took England’s World Cup finalists to extra-time, Villiere stood out as soon as extra, with Vickerman once more taken by him.

He says: “I truly observed him extra when he was enjoying at Twickenham and there was no crowd. You could possibly hear his fixed communication and he was bringing on a number of the different gamers who weren’t that well-known. The purpose of distinction was how a lot work he does.”

As he had at Rouen, Villiere went from France’s reserves to a nailed-on starter for the primary group, forcing his method forward of Teddy Thomas within the pecking order for the 2021 Six Nations. A profitable July tour of Australia and a full 80 minutes within the landmark win over the All Blacks in November adopted.

It was becoming that this yr’s marketing campaign noticed him develop into the primary Frenchman since Clerc to attain a Six Nations hat-trick, within the spherical one victory over Italy. But when something, his efficiency towards Eire per week later was even higher, when it was his jackaling and rock-solid defence that caught the attention. It was all of the extra spectacular when it was revealed afterwards that he had suffered a fractured sinus through the match. As Edwards says, one powerful hombre!

Whether or not it was stopping Bundee Aki useless in his tracks or marching Hugo Keenan again ten metres earlier than shunting him into contact, Villiere gave pretty much as good as he bought and a few.

For former France winger and sevens star Julien Candelon, it’s right down to his body. He says: “Gabin’s physique sort signifies that he was very well-suited to sevens but additionally 15s. Once you see him, you don’t do a double take due to his measurement. He’s not large however he’s very sturdy, he’s bought a low centre of gravity and he’s so vigorous that he bounces again off gamers and could be very elusive.

“So regardless of not being that heavy, he is ready to bounce out of tackles. He’s proof that you could excel on the highest stage with an uncommon construct for a rugby participant. And the truth that he’s vigorous on his toes and elusive signifies that when he takes on a defender, these little modifications of course can destabilise the opponent and swing the stability of energy. That’s his power. He creates loads of uncertainty within the defence.”

The query now could be what’s the restrict for Villiere? Whereas the sinus damage stored him out of the journey to Scotland, he was again for the closing rounds of the Six Nations and helped France seal a primary Grand Slam in 12 years. Damage appears to be the largest impediment to his ambition of being a part of France’s Rugby World Cup aspect. His performances since breaking into the aspect have made him all however undroppable when match reverse Damian Penaud.

It has been an unbelievable journey from the Rouen B group within the French third flight. With RWC 2023 adopted by a house Olympics in 2024, the place the sevens shall be held on the Stade de France, there may nonetheless be a fairytale ending in retailer for Villiere, who is barely too conscious of the unlikely path he treads.

As he himself mentioned just lately: “It was a dream for me in the beginning, coming from Federale One. It nonetheless is in a method. I gained’t take as a right what has occurred to me. I’m conscious that I’m uncommon and it fits me.”

This text initially appeared within the April 2022 version of Rugby World.

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