When the Stade Toulousain, the most successfull rugby club in the world with 4 European Cup titles and 19 French Championships were looking for a center in 2005, we knew it had to be Maleli Kunavore. His style of play and skills matched perfectly the game Stade Toulousain is reknown for and Maleli proved us right by eventually becoming one the key player in the Stade Toulousain system.
When he played for Nadroga before he left for France he showed glimpses of what we knew would be an exceptional player.
At the time it was still fashionable for the professional rugby teams to recruit very physical centers, who were used mainly to crash the middle of the field and set up a solid platform for a second phase attack. These tactics prevailed in most teams except for Stade Toulousain whose style of play is to keep the ball alive, offload before or after contact and play in the space after creating gaps in the defense.
For this style of play you do not want a center who just crashes but a center who can set up his partners in the gap, a center who can pass smoothly, can sidestep to keep the defense guessing and is creative in his play.
This is what Maleli could offer with his talent and skills. For Nadroga he was indeed looking always for the support. He would pass a better ball to his partners than the one he received and would not bury the ball in a ruck.
That is the philosophy of play of Toulouse, this style of play was designed mainly by our mentor Pierre Villepreux who coached the team through the eighties and early nineties.
This style was perpetuated by all following coaches who are all from the club, first as players than as educators and coaches.
Tradition is very important in all successful clubs and the tradition that Maleli joined in 2005 was the one in which his talent strived.
Unfortunately for Maleli he could not be recognised in his homeland as much as he was in France. At the time he excelled in Toulouse Fiji Rugby was still using a different pattern play in which Maleli could not display his immense talent.
Maleli quickly fitted in Stade Toulousain’s game, his deceptive moves kept the defenses guessing, his incredible power would break the tackles, his hand’s agility could catch passes in all sorts of positions, and most of all he was playing for the others. This means that he was totally unselfish and the collective game of Toulouse would come first.
The team and Maleli were (and still are) coached to adapt constantly to the defense. This is the first principle of play. Players must respond as a team to the situation they are encountering. This is what we call the intelligence of the situation.
Players read the defense and react to it as a team. So when Maleli read a situation he would play according to it and his partners understood immediately what he was trying to do and they could anticipate the lines of support Maleli was calling for with his moves.
In order to play rugby this way you must have players who are multi-skilled. Maleli Kunavore had more than one skill for a center, not only his passes, his inside/outside cuts, his power and acceleration in the gap, he had also a great kicking game that could relieve his fly half (Fred Michalak) or his inside center (Yannick Jauzion) and also all sorts of kicking styles that would place the ball in an open space for his wings Vincent Clerc or Medard or his fullback Poitrenaud.
His physical abilities were out of the ordinary, he had the capacity to stand up and resist into the tackle giving more time to his captain Thierry Dusautoir to come and support.
His other quality that was really impressive was his suppleness and grace. Thanks to it he would be able to pick up balls other could not or deceive a defender with the ease of a jaguar.
But most of all in Toulouse any back must be versatile. Michalak can play 9 or 10, Vincent Clerc can plays wing or 9 and Maleli could play center, wing , fullback in the Toulouse backline with no difference.
In order to play the total rugby those are the things we require from players and Maleli was one of the very few. He was a precursor in advance on his time, his offload inside the defense were before Sony Bill Williams did it, and he was one of those few who could do it.
Finally the cherry on Maleli’s cake was his kicking for goal. What a thrill to see him convert a penalty that sealed the game for Toulouse against Clermont in the final of the French Championship.
The stade de France was packed with his 85.000 spectators , millions more glued to the television screens. Maleli did not shiver, he kicked the ball straight in between the bars, sending him with the stars in eternal glory.
On December 3, 2012 the Toulouse big crowd will applaud Maleli for one minute before the kick off in their T14 game versus Clermont after they watch one last time on the big screen of Maleli’s outstanding plays.
Last weekend, Thierry Dusautoir asked the Toulouse players to wear the black arm band in memory of Kunavore when they took the field for France. Both Vincent Clerc and Yannick Nyanga scored outstanding tries and we all know it was Maleli spirit who took them over the line.
Franck Boivert – FRU National Coaching Director