Brutal baptism helps Volavola settle nerves as playmaker
Baptism of fire ... Ben Volavola. Photo: Getty Images
IF ANYTHING was going to rattle the opening-night nerves of rookie Waratahs five-eighth Ben Volavola it was Robbie Fruean firing down the field, ball in hand.
The Crusaders centre was out to intimidate but in doing so gave Volavola just what he needed in his first start for NSW - a hard and fast reckoning in front of a supportive home crowd.
''I think everyone saw that first run [he made] and I was just belted,'' Volavola said. ''But it was a good taste, I was fortunate to taste that early in the game, it settled me in and got [me] used to the contact and helped me brace myself for other collisions.''
Now encouraged by his first hit-out, Volavola said he was ready to lead the Waratahs in their first regular round game against the Reds in Brisbane next week.
''With the help of the other guys and with the help of the coaches I definitely think I could lead this team,'' he said. ''We're gelling really well, after today we need to get a few combinations right and then we should be right for the season.''
But back to the collisions, of which there were plenty in the 22-year-old's first time steering the Waratahs around the paddock.
Coach Michael Cheika was pleased with how his recruit stood up to the challenge, particularly as Volavola played most of his rugby for Southern Districts at fullback.
''He didn't flinch in the physical battle, so I was happy enough,'' Cheika said. ''He pretty much showed where he's good and where he needs to improve. He's a great instinctive player and he understands how to take a line on, but he's not played a lot as a playmaker in a team … so we're converting him into that role.''
It was not only Volavola's first start in sky blue but also his first game against a long-time hero.
''I've looked up to [Dan Carter] for a couple of years … [it was] a great experience seeing how he controls the game, he looks like he has all the time in the world,'' he said. ''Playing against him for a couple of minutes I learnt a lot.''
Injuries to Bernard Foley and Berrick Barnes accelerated Volavola's passage to starting five-eighth. It wasn't all smooth sailing but the rustiness wasn't confined to the playmaker. His teammates coughed up a good deal of ball in all parts of the field, sending passes high above heads and skudding across the turf.
''It was really intense,'' Volavola said of the first half. ''I was pretty nervous and really shaky but in the second half the boys settled in and made it easy for myself so it was good.''
There is uncertainty over whether Foley, who started at No.10 in the Waratahs' first two trials, will be ready to return for the clash with the Reds.
Hand in hand with his confidence, Volavola is also keenly aware of where he could improve.
''I was really flat in that game, I needed to pull back, not overplay my hand and control the game a lot more,'' he said. ''Playing at fly-half the team looks at you to control the tempo of the game and I learnt that playing against the Crusaders.''
Cheika said there were no further injury concerns, so the focus will be on whether Foley and Barnes are strong enough to play in Brisbane. Volavola said he looked forward to meeting another famous five-eighth, Quade Cooper.
''He's a really different player to what [Carter] is, he plays with a lot of flair and he can sort of just pull something out of nowhere,'' he said. ''It will be interesting to see how I go against him.''
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