The 23-year-old is on the right wing for the southerners as they host the Hurricanes under the Forsyth Barr Stadium roof on Friday night.
There he will mark Salesi Rayasi, who is fresh off 14 tries in the 2020 Mitre 10 Cup with Auckland and is already amongst the 2021 tries with the capital franchise.
Vahaakolo’s schooling was complicated. He was in and out of colleges due to a rebellious phase, having walked out of home at 14, which saw him sleeping rough in a bush in the west of the City of Sails.
But his last year at school was 2015 and there he first turned heads, mainly at fullback, for the Auckland Grammar School First XV. He impressed enough to make a NZ Barbarians Schools side that included players of the ilk of Tiaan Falcon, Jona Nareki, Stephen Perofeta, Bailyn Sullivan, Ryan Coxon, Tom Christie, Brayden Iose, Jacob Pierce and Samisoni Taukei’aho, Super Rugby players all.
Vahaakolo scored a try in the 18-20 defeat to NZ Schools. It was, incredibly, his first year in the game.
Like many Auckland Grammar boys, he found his way to the famous Ponsonby club, where the great Sir Bryan ‘Beegee’ Williams had a lot to do with him. Vahaakolo was firing on all cylinders on the wing by 2018, when he scored 11 tries and won a Gallaher Shield. In 2019, he won another Gallaher and racked up a startling 21 tries, to put him close to Va’aiga Tuigamala and Ross Thompson territory for the most premier tries in one season for Ponies.
After 62 games for the Ponies prems in four seasons, and having completed an accountancy degree from the University of Auckland, Vahaakolo was lured south in 2020 by the Highlanders. He was in sharp form for the Dunedin Sharks club, which turns 150 in a few weeks. Then followed a fine rookie Mitre 10 Cup campaign for Otago in which his seven tries – the team high – included a double against Northland and a superbly taken five-pointer against Southland.
Vahaakolo was unlucky to miss the first Highlanders squad for 2020, but was called in as injury cover for Sam Gilbert. He has impressed at training and brings clear X-factor with his powerful running and finishing ability. His power through the hips is reminiscent of Williams and Caleb Clarke and is in keeping with his athletic background.
Vahaakolo is a prime example of one who has turned his life around and shown perseverance and patience. He will be smiling more than most when the Highlanders run out on their home turf seeking to supply enough ball and pace for their talented back three to really cut loose.
Their newest player won’t have a problem with that.