At 42 and six years after his last professional game, Orene Ai’i has returned to professional rugby. He tells Jim Tucker it was the death of a wonderful All Blacks wing that inspired him.
Former New Zealand Sevens star Orene Ai’i has made a stunning comeback at 42 in the United States where he wishes he could spot just one extra Fijian face in the stands.
Ai’i was happily enjoying life in Los Angeles as a skills coach with the LA Giltinis club in February when he last spoke to the late Joeli Vidiri.
Vidiri was in California on his wedding trip when the two former Blues teammates started planning a catch-up.
“We spoke and Joeli was going to drive down to LA to meet up. It was something we were both looking forward to,” Ai’i said.
The visit never happened. Vidiri was cruelly taken at just 48 by a series of cardiac arrests while battling COVID-19.
It was a double dose of news for the rugby-mad youngster born in Apia, as Ai’i could not help but be awestruck by All Blacks wing Va’aiga Tuigamala. He played at such an imposing size. Ai’i’s nimble skills were always in such a compact package he might have been a trinket on Tuigamala’s keyring.
They are premature losses that Ai’i is still struggling to process as so many still are in NZ’s close-knit rugby community. They also touched Ai’i in a different way.
“It put everything in perspective. You have got to make the most of every opportunity in life,” Ai’i said.
The US is the land of the sporting comeback. The place is in a lather about quarterback supreme Tom Brady deciding to play on in the NFL at 44.
When the surprising plan was hatched for Ai’i to get ready for his first pro game since 2016 the father-of-four didn’t hesitate.
“I’ve been on board with the Giltinis from the start. I’ve always been into fitness,” Ai’i explained.
Continue this story in our Apr/May issue.
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