Interview: Netani Talei, Edinburgh back row forward

Fijian No.8 confident stuttering Edinburgh will be in the hunt against French aristocrats. Picture: Greg Macvean
Fijian No.8 confident stuttering Edinburgh will be in the hunt against French aristocrats. Picture: Greg Macvean
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KEEP an eye on eBay. The web-based auction site has posted such various items as an aircraft carrier, the Pope’s golf clubs and Iceland so a few Heineken Cup man-of-the-match crystal vases should barely merit a mention.

It’s just that Edinburgh’s favourite Fijian Netani Talei won three of them in just five appearances in the pool matches and, not being a fan of flower arranging, they are cluttering up a perfectly good cupboard in his Edinburgh flat.

Given Talei’s hefty contribution to the Edinburgh cause – those three MOTM awards were matched by three crucial tries – it seems odd to note that he was absent when Edinburgh kicked off their Heineken Cup campaign in Reading, not even worth a place on the pine.

Instead the young pretender to the throne, Stuart McInally, appeared to cement his place in the starting line-up with a scorching solo try against London Irish. It didn’t happen. McInally suffered an injury, Talei had the shirt when Racing Metro arrived at Edinburgh and he has kept it ever since.

It was the Fijian’s try that sparked an outrageous comeback from 44-20 down in the final quarter of the match. He also grabbed tries against Racing in Paris, when his fancy footwork allowed him to jink past four French defenders, and again against London Irish in the final round when the capital club just grabbed the four they needed for that crucial bonus point.

The Fijian did not have the happiest of World Cups and club coach Michael Bradley admits that the club perhaps threw Talei back into the mix a little too early.

The back row forward sees it differently, insisting that it was the disappointment of the World Cup that spurred him on to better things, so it was put to him that Edinburgh’s international contingent will harbour a similar determination to rid themselves of the bad taste left by a Six Nations whitewash?

“They will put the Six Nations behind them now because they have the same feeling for Edinburgh as they do for Scotland,” offers Talei.

“Them coming back to play for Edinburgh makes them more happy because they are back with the boys and share the same banter and so much closeness as well, they are bringing back a lot of experience and I think it’s going to be a different feeling [in the club] altogether.”

The big Fijian is an intriguing character; very obviously an islander but one who seems increasingly at home in the northernmost outpost of the game. He is built along traditional lines – even his muscles have muscles – and he sports a slew of tattoos. His entire right arm is a tribute to his God-fearing grandmother who raised him and his siblings in Fiji, complete with her favourite phases “Faith” and “Reap What You Sow”; both as relevant to Edinburgh Rugby as they are to the big breakaway.

Talei is a good talker, garrulous even, full of opinions and happy to share them. So when he is asked why there is such a discrepancy between Edinburgh’s European excellence and their appalling league results he wastes no time in offering his theory.

“So many people are saying different things. The boys go away to internationals and the young boys coming up are putting so much pressure on themselves to prove to the coaches that they are capable of the job even with the internationals away. That should not be the case. You can be nervous in this job, maybe a bit scared, but when it comes to you on the field it is just you and your own state of mind trying to get yourself involved in a 15-man team rather than an individual thing. So rather than trying to get your own game right you have to try to get your input right for the whole of the squad.”

So it’s a mental issue?

“Yeah,” Talei agrees. “A lot of [young] boys have been playing good for a couple of games but they’ve probably been thinking that they’ll only get a couple of games and then make way when the internationals come back. It shouldn’t be like that. You’ve got to push yourself so that even when the internationals come back you may get a start in front of them. It’s not the case that international players are international players and club players are club players, you just need to keep stepping up your mark and pushing your game.”

Their poor league form has effectively reduced Edinburgh’s season to just 80 minutes of rugby on Saturday and they will need to beat Toulouse to ensure the season does not fall flat on its face at the final whistle, something Talei insists is well within their grasp.

“Edinburgh are capable of anything with the talent we have, it’s just amazing,” says one of their more amazing talents. “We must utilise the talent at the right place at the right time and we’ve got good coaches taking us through.

“Similar to Scotland, I think they had a good Six Nations but just because of them not finishing what they started it didn’t go their way. For the last couple of games we’ve been in the same situation, pushing teams to the limit but not finishing off that final execution. It needs to be different [against Toulouse], we need to finish that last pass off and I think we are capable of that but we just need to do the right things at the right time.

“It’s going to be the biggest 80 minutes of everyone’s life, you do whatever you can but, at the same time, you have the mentality that you are working as a team. You all want to win but you have to put the efforts together, it’s not an individual thing.

“I don’t think Toulouse will underestimate us because of what we did to Racing Metro home and away. But they come here thinking that it’ll be their win because they’ve been doing very well in the last couple of games but it’s our home turf and it’s our day and we need to step up to the plate and show Scotland that, if we didn’t do well in the Six Nations, in the Heineken Cup we are still pushing ourselves against the best teams in the world and hopefully we’ll come up with a win.”

A little further down the line Talei is looking forward to entertaining several of his Edinburgh colleagues in his native Fiji this coming summer when Scotland tour. He has two sons who live there with their mother (from whom he is estranged) and he admits the difficulty in living and working at the opposite ends of the earth but it isn’t long before the competitive side of the islander trumps the compassionate one.

“I said to Geoff [Cross] that in Fiji whatever happens on the field stays on the field. We’ll still be friends at the end of the day!”

That’s the sort of ruthlessness that might just add another crystal vase to the clutter in Talei’s cupboard.