By Chris Thau
A chance meeting at last month’s Bournemouth Sevens will see Londoner Stephen Hihetah make his international debut for Romania in Sunday’s IRB Nations Cup title decider against Emerging Italy.
The shy and unassuming 21-year-old winger, who is qualified for the Oaks through his grandmother, plucked up the courage to introduce himself in Romanian to Bogdan Munteanu, coach of the Bucharest Sevens team, while he was in Bournemouth as a member of the ‘Pups’ side set up by his club coach Nick Warren.
That briefest of conversations led to an appearance for the Romania Sevens team at the FIRA-AER Grand Prix tournament in Lyon a week later – a far cry from a domestic season that started with Blackheath and ended with Barking, the struggling National League Two (South) outfit.
Romania performed above expectations in Lyon and Hihetah's contribution was noted by Munteanu who rang Head Coach Lynn Howells to inform him of the newly-found gem.
The rest is history as a slightly bewildered Hihetah, nicknamed “Fane” by his new teammates, takes up the story. “I came back to Romania from Bournemouth and a day later I was in camp with the Sevens team," said Hiheteh, who also counts London Scottish among his former clubs.
“Coach Bogdan Munteanu warned me that international Rugby Sevens was really a huge step up both physically and mentally and he was right. There’s no comparison to what I was playing previously, I have to say.
“However, he gave me confidence and somehow I managed to survive. We did quite well and won two matches. There is a lot of talent in that Romanian team; if only they would stay together a bit more.”
Hihetah continued: “After Lyon I went back to Bucharest and Lynn Howells asked me if I would like to join the 15s camp to see how they prepare for the Nations Cup. I said okay, but did not realise just how hard they work, especially since I was quite tired after the season. However I did my best and in fact I lost more than half a stone during the last two weeks.
“Yesterday (Thursday), Lynn told me that winger Adrian Matei had picked up an injury and asked me whether I was ready to step in to play for Romania against the Italians. You don't say no to such an offer, do you? What an amazing experience!”