Ex-All Black Saili has ‘massive shoes to fill’ at Racing 92

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Paris (AFP) – Former New Zealand center Francis Saili says he has “massive shoes to fill” as Virimi Vakatawa’s replacement at Racing 92 before Saturday’s Top 14 trip to Toulouse.

France midfielder Vakatawa, who joined the Parisians as a teenager, was forced to retire earlier this month aged just 30 due to a heart condition and Saili was signed days later.

“I have massive shoes to fill. This guy’s been a staple for racing,” Saili told AFP on Thursday.

“It would have been awesome to play alongside him though.

“He’s such a big loss for Racing but I have to have the mindset that there’s big shoes to fill but it’s a challenge to look forward to,” he added.

Saili, 31, joined the club after two seasons with Biarritz and had held talks with Racing’s local rivals Stade Francais.

He had two more years left on his contract before leaving the surf-mad Basque coast for the leafy suburbs of south-western Paris.

“It’s a great place to live but my family didn’t settle in. At the end of the day, family comes first with me,” Saili said.

“The president of Biarritz wanted money for me.

“Having Racing pop up was a blessing for me, I’m grateful for it,” he added.

The former Munster three-quarter made the last of his two Test appearances in 2013 but now thanks to World Rugby’s law changes qualifies for Samoa due to family links.

The Rugby World Cup is held in France in 11 months’ time with the Pacific Islanders in a group alongside England, Japan, Argentina and Chile.

“I would be open to play for Samoa. It would be a dream come true. It would show respect to my parents and my heritage,” he said.

“With the World Cup looming, it would be awesome to be a part of that spectacle.

“Hopefully there’s a chance but I’m not the coach that picks the team!” the 2011 world under-20 champion added.

‘X-factor’

Saili’s brother Peter had an impressive rugby career playing in New Zealand and France while his cousin Noah Lolesio is in Australia’s Rugby Championship set-up.

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The fly-half has been omitted from their squad for Saturday’s game with the All Blacks despite recovering from injury.

“I remember back in the day when he was a young one, going over to his house on the Gold Coast, he was a boy,” Saili said of the 22-year-old.

“I can’t wait to see his trajectory, it’s only gone well so far. He’s the future for the Wallabies,” he added.

Later on Saturday, Saili heads to the record 21-time French champions Toulouse , who have the likes of World Rugby player of the year Antoine Dupont and Italy winger Ange Capuozzo among their ranks.

“Off the back of last week with them losing to Pau, we know there will be a big reaction,” Saili said.

“They have X-factor players in their team and so do we. We have to be confident in that respect,” he added.

Elsewhere this weekend in the Top 14, holders Montpellier welcome Pau days after their English No.8 Zach Mercer was nominated for the league’s player of the year award, with the ceremony in a Parisian concert hall on Monday.

On Sunday, La Rochelle head to Clermont but their director of rugby in ex-Ireland fly-half Ronan O’Gara will be banned from the touchline after receiving a six-week ban for his behavior towards a match official.

Fixtures (times GMT)

Saturday

Perpignan v Toulon (1300), Lyon v Stade Francais, Bayonne v Bordeaux-Begles, Montpellier v Pau, Castres v Brive (all 1500), Toulouse v Racing 92 (1900)

Sunday

Clermont v La Rochelle (1905)

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