Viliame 'Bill' Mata’s journey in rugby has seen him develop into an iconic player for both club and country, with more than a few accolades along the way - writes James Parsons.
The giant Fijian forward from Tailevu has cemented himself as one of the game’s elite back-rowers, rubber-stamped by a 2018-19 campaign that saw him named Guinness PRO14 Player’s Player of the Year, while picking up a nomination for EPCR World Player of the Year.
However, his journey started in a different code of the game, initially as a rugby league player, before he switched to play Sevens, where he caught the eye of then Fiji Sevens Coach, Ben Ryan.
“I first saw Bill playing in the Coral Coast Sevens in Sigatoka,” said Ryan.
"I had been watching most of the games up in the stands and decided to go pitch side for a different view, and Bill literally cast a shadow over me as he went on to the field. He was a pretty formidable player, and wasn’t on anyone’s radar.
“Shortly after we got him into the Fiji Sevens camp, we got him involved and capped really quickly. But he was breaking down in training with cramp and wasn’t used to the intensity of it, which led to us going to meet his family and chatting to him about professionalism.
“He kept going and going, and established himself as a bit of a regular in the team, and he gave away the least amount of penalties, his offloads were nearly always spot on, and technically he was brilliant.
“At the start of selection for the Olympic team I was hoping he could stay fit, because I knew he would be right up there. He went all the way through, and just got fitter and fitter, and was brilliant in the Olympic Games.”
The rampaging forward caught the eyes of admirers around the globe, as he helped his country towards a historic Olympic Gold Medal - scoring in the 43-7 Final victory over Great Britain, and putting in several impressive performances throughout the campaign in Rio de Janeiro.
Among those admirers were Edinburgh Rugby, who managed to sign Bill shortly after the Games. Then-Head CoachAlan Solomons knew that they were getting a “hugely talented player, big, powerful, and explosive."
The first task for Bill after the Olympics was to adapt to the 15-a-side game. His drive to learn was on show from the off, impressing club co-captain Stuart McInally when he first arrived in the Scottish capital.
“He was very quiet, wanted to keep his head down and prove himself,” McInally recalls.
“One thing that struck me about him was how he was such a fast learner. When it came to lineout time, he caught on so quickly, even though it was new lineout calls in a different language. You’d only have to tell him things once and he’d know what to do.”
“I remember him coming off the bench against Timisoara Saracens and seeing how big he was, towering above everyone else.
“He scored a try that day, popping up in the right place as you’d expect from a Fijian 7s player, but he’s evolved into a really solid and sought after Number 8 in the 15's game.”
Adapting to the change on the field was never likely to cause issues for a player with the skill set of Big Bill - the challenge was always going to be how he adapted to a different culture, over 9,000 miles from home.
There is currently a mini-Fijian community at Edinburgh Rugby, with four players from the pacific island in the squad, however when Bill arrived in the capital the landscape was different, and it was backroom staff members such as Head of Strength and Conditioning, Nick Lumley - with some help from the Sevens circuit - that allowed Bill to settle into his new surroundings.
“You have to look after guys like Bill,” says Lumley, “they’ve come from the other side of the world and from community and family based backgrounds. You’ve got to invest a bit of time in them to help them settle, and when you do, you bring out the best in them.”
“Joseva Nayacavou, a Scotland sevens player who was born in Fiji, was key to things. Jo and Bill were good friends, and he was critical for helping Bill settle in Edinburgh, and helping him with the same lessons we had learned with Jo in sevens.
“Jo worked hard on his diet when he was playing sevens, and his whole S&C programme was tailored to his needs which differed from most of the Scottish born players.
“He played a big role in helping me teach Bill about how to live life away from training, and bringing out the best in Bill.”
Having worked hard to adapt to his new surroundings and regime - with his new best friend the trusty wattbike - Bill has gone from strength to strength, becoming one of Europe’s premier players.
It wouldn’t be long before a call up to the Fijian 15s side, for whom he made a fitting appearance in 2018 against his Edinburgh teammates, including McInally, as Fiji took on Scotland at BT Murrayfield.
“I remember the morning of the game, going through my pre-match routine, getting a text from Bill wishing me luck in the game," continued McInally.
“It was a sign of him as a person, and his Fijian culture. He was wanting Fiji to win, but it was nice in that moment that he texted me to wish me well.
“I know that game was a special moment for him, unfortunately for us he scored! He’s a legend, and has become someone we’re so accustomed to seeing at No. 8 for Edinburgh.”
From being spotted in Sigatoka, to Olympic Gold, with plenty of European adventures along the way, it has been quite the journey for Viliame Mata.
His former coach, Ben Ryan, summed things up nicely.
“Bill has become a bit of an icon for Edinburgh, and a fantastic test match number 8, and one of the best players in the world.”