By Tony Smith of Stuff
The tiny Pacific territory of Wallis and Futuna can, per capita, surely lay claim to be test rugby’s hottest talent nursery.
Three players who trace their heritage to Wallis and Futuna — a French “overseas collectivity” located north-west of Fiji and west of Samoa — are in France’s Six Nations squad.
Hooker Peato Mauvaka — a two-try hero in France’s 40-25 win over the All Blacks last November and lock Romain Taofifénua have been joined in Fabien Galthie’s squad by young centre Yoram Moefana, Taofifénua’s second cousin.
Both Mauvaka and Moefana played in France’s hard-won 13-9 victory over Wales in Cardiff last night – a victory that keeps alive their hopes of a first grand slam and Six Nations title in a decade.
Lock Taofifénua would probably also have played if he had not contracted covid-19.
When Mauvaka and Taofifénua came off the bench to join Moefana in the recent win over Ireland, Wallis and Futuna effectively supplied 20 per cent of the France XV. This was repeated in the victory over Scotland.
Wallisians and Futunans have the right to live anywhere in France, so automatically qualify for French national sporting teams.
Born in New Caledonia
The list of French rugby internationals includes some players born in France to parents from Wallis and Futuna, or born and raised in New Caledonia where around 30,000 Wallisians and Futunans live.
Outside back Yann David, who still plays for Top 14 club Bayonne, had four tests in 2008. He was born in Lyon in mainland France, but his mother, Monika Fiafialoto, a former French javelin champion, is Wallisian.
Towering Noumea-born lock Sébastien Vahaamahina had 46 test caps between 2012 and 2019. Vahaamahina, who scored his first try in the 2019 Rugby World Cup quarterfinal, retired from test rugby after getting sent off for elbowing a Welsh rival in the head in that 2019 defeat.
Still only 30, he continues to play in the Top 14 for Clermont.
Vahaamahina was often joined in France’s second row engine room by Romain Taofifénua, whose father, Willy was one of the first players from Wallis and Futuna to make a mark on the French club scene.
Romain — born in Mont-de-Marsan in France and raised in Limoges — made his test debut in 2012. The 31-year-old has since garnered 32 caps.
Brother Sébastien, 30, propped France’s scrum in two tests in 2017. The Taofifénua twosome, and their cousin Vahaamahina played together in a 23-23 draw with Japan that year.
Rugby World Cup squad
Vahaamahina and Mauvaka were joined in France’s 2019 Rugby World Cup squad by another player with Wallis and Futuna heritage, Toulon hooker Christopher Tolofua, another cousin of the Taofifénuas, who has seven caps since his debut at 18 in 2012.
Tolofua’s younger brother, Selevasio, a No 8, has won European Champions Cup and French Top 14 honours with Toulouse, alongside Mauvaka and ex-All Blacks great Jerome Kaino. He won his first and so far only test cap at No 8 in the 2020 Autumn Nations Cup final defeat to England at Twickenham, playing with Mauvaka and Yoram Moefana.
So fielding players with Wallis and Futuna lineage is nothing new for Les Bleus, but Moefana’s emergence has served to heighten the link.
The 21-year-old — who has played little more than 30 Top 14 games for Bordeaux-Bègles – has beaten the more experienced Fiji-born Virimi Vakatawa for the berth in midfield alongside the talented Gaël Fickou. In the last two games, against Scotland and Wales, he ha played on the wing.
Moefana was reportedly born on Futuna but moved to France at 13 to live in Limoges with a professional rugby career as his goal. He lived in France’s porcelain industry capital with his uncle, Tapu Falatea, 33, now a prop for Agen in France’s second tier.
Young Moefana was soon recruited by the Colomiers academy and made his Pro D2 debut with the club in 2018.
After just six games, he was signed in 2019 by Bordeaux-Bègles, where he plays alongside test teammates Cameron Woki, Matthieu Jalibert and Maxime Lucu and Tonga’s former Chiefs prop Ben Tamiefuna.
Represented France Under-20s
Moefana represented France at under-20 level before becoming the nation’s first test player born in the 21st century when he made his debut, aged 20, against Italy in November 2020.
Judging by his assured display against Ireland’s highly-rated midfielders Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose, Moefana could be in for a long stay in the blue jersey.
Galthie told French media before the start of the Six Nations that Moefana had been on his radar since February 2020 while “he was with the U20s, and he worked with us at senior training camps.
“We’ve seen him progress with Bordeaux and when we had to enlarge the group for the  Autumn Nations Cup, we didn’t hesitate to start him because he was already impressive in training. His potential was obvious then, and he performed well in the final against England.”
Moefana was supposed to tour Australia in 2021, but got injured and spent a long spell on the sidelines.
Galthie had no hesitation hurling the youngster into the Six Nations, saying: “Technically, physically and psychologically, without forgetting his talent, he is ready to meet all the requirements of this game.”
Bordeaux-Bègles coach Christophe Urios has praised Moefana as “an easy player to manage” and “always reliable”, saying the young Christian is “as reserved, even shy, in life as he is aggressive on the field”.
‘Not an ambassador yet’
A modest Moefana told French media that while it was “always nice to find guys who come from New Caledonia, Wallis or Futuna in the French team” he did not see himself as “an ambassador yet”.
“I think more of Romain [Taofifénua] because he’s been there for a long time. For young people, I think of Peato [Mauvaka] with his club and selection experience. I find out.”
Moefana’s father, Taofifenua Falatea, had earlier ventured to France to play for Niort, but injury stalled his career. Today, he is president of the Union Rugby Club de Dumbéa (URCD) club in Dumbéa, near Noumea, which is formally linked to the Toulouse club.
Mauvaka, is the URCD club’s most famous product, playing in Toulouse’s winning titles-winning team last season before his brace against the All Blacks.
“I’m not going to hide it from you, we tend to support the All Blacks and his dad has always been a fan of the All Blacks,” Falatea told France’s La Croix newspaper last December. “Playing the All Blacks is already something for him, but scoring tries for [France] and being man of the match is great. Frankly, I think he made history.”
Mauvaka — first spotted by Toulouse as a 14-year-old centre — made his test debut in 2019 and now has 12 caps. He has carved a niche as an impact player off the bench, replacing clubmate Julien Marchand at hooker.
Moefana, Mauvaka and Taofifénua — all in line now to play for France against England in the championship decider Paris next weekend — may not be the last proud Wallisians and Futunans to line up at Stade de France to the strains of La Marseillaise.
Donovan Taofifénua, Romain’s 22-year-old cousin and an Under-20 World Cup winner with France, plays in Paris for Racing 92 and has already been called up to France senior squads.
According to the La Croix article, people of Wallis and Futuna heritage comprise 10 percent of New Caledonia’s population, but represent 80 percent of the Union Rugby Club de Dumbéa membership.
The production line should roll on.
Wallis and Futuna at a glance
- Wallis and Futuna is a French overseas collectivity known, officially, as the Territory of the Islands of Wallis and Futuna, or Territoire des îles Wallis-et-Futuna.
- Located in the Pacific Ocean, 280km north-west of Fiji and 370km east of Samoa.
- Has three main islands (Wallis, Futuna and Alofi) and 20 small islets.
- The resident population is around 12,000, with another 30,000 people of Wallis and Futuna descent living in New Caledonia.
- Its people are Polynesian, but, as French citizens, have an automatic right to live anywhere in France.
Tony Smith is a journalist for Stuff. Sources for this article include La Croix, Rugby World, Sud-Ouest newspaper, Wikipedia and New Zealand and Australian government websites. Republished with permission.