BUS passive, as is its wont, the Wednesday column a few weeks back extolled the joys of the No 79 –the country bus – between Richmond and Barnard Castle.

It’s better yet, emailed Richard Davies from Newsham – en route – if the driver’s Talite Vaioleti.

The Northern Echo:

Known usually as Vee, for reasons which may not require explanation, the splendidly hirsute chap who regularly drives the No 79 is a 6ft 4in, 18-stone Tongan rugby international and former Barbarians player who’s now in the second row for Darlington Mowden Park in National League One and is every inch the gentle giant.

“A delightful chap who can’t do enough for his elderly passengers, me included,” says Richard.

Vee is 38, one of a Tongan family of 12, a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints and married to Catherine, a Jersey native whom he met while playing in the Channel Islands and with whom he has a seven-year-old daughter.

He lives in Barnard Castle, where he has also worked as a wine bar bouncer.

“I love quiet places. I much prefer living in the country to the city,” he once told an interviewer, and must feel wholly at home tackling the No 79, so popular that the regulars buy him Christmas presents – even, he admits, a bottle of Jack Daniels.

“Vee’s brilliant, a real salt of the earth guy,” says Tom Bramley, Mowden Park’s press officer. “Lovely man, really quiet for such a large guy,” says a colleague at Hodgson’s Buses in Barnard Castle.

He’s a bit surprised at the sudden attention. “When people first saw me, I think they thought I was a bit scary but when they get to know me, they realise I’m not that sort of person.

“I’m just a normal guy from the Pacific Islands, really quite shy, but I prefer to be happy and smile at people.

“I’m really just doing my job. I’ve been very blessed. If people get on a bus and I can make them smile, it’s a happy day. I like to play rugby with a smile on my face, too.”

There’s a sadness, nonetheless.

A rugby player since childhood – “sometimes with an empty coconut, maybe sometimes just with a stick, I was quite tiny back then” – his career was interrupted between 2001-03 when sent to be a Mormon missionary in Australia.

Chosen to represent Tonga in France in 2005, he was approached about playing in Europe, had a season with Royan and then joined Hertford, where other Tongans played. “It caused a bit of interest, especially when we turned up for evening Mass in Tongan national dress,” he once told an interviewer.

“Mass” isn’t something familiar to the Latter Day Saints. It may have come with a journalistic licence.

Subsequently he captained Jersey to successive promotions and a Twickenham appearance and played for Wharfedale and Rotherham before returning north to Darlington in 2013.

“They’d just moved to the Arena, had a lot of young players and needed some experience,” he says. They train together twice a week, though he rarely works out otherwise. “If I go to the gym people laugh, because they never see me there.”

He worked in a care home – “I enjoyed helping people with dementia” – became a bus driver with Arriva and joined Hodgson’s two years ago.

He now lives in Barnard Castle, there long enough to call it Barney, to refer to Catherine as “the missus” and to his father – a former Mormon bishop – as “the old man.”

When finally he finishes playing for Mowden Park – “they’ve already asked me what I’m doing next season” – he hopes for a season lower down the leagues with Barnard Castle. “I’ve promised them I will. I’ve been very lucky, I want to give something back to the sport.”

It’s 8.50am when we catch up with Vee, awaiting passengers on a grey-damp morning in Richmond market place. He’s wearing shorts and a woolly hat.

Four hours later he’s on his statutory break in Barnard Castle, has walked the dog, drinks hot chocolate, enjoys a plate of scrambled egg and smoked salmon in a cafe. The rain’s squalling; he’s still wearing shorts.

He’s still a member of the Latter Day Saints. Sadly inaccessible on the internet, a piece headed “Spreading the gospel through sport” appeared in a Latter Day Saints publication in 2010.

The following year he recorded a BBC piece on the significance of the haka. “It’s like stepping onto the battlefield, the emotion comes straight from the national anthem. Death or victory,” said Vee.

Though no longer doorstepping, he still acknowledges the church’s missionaries. “Sometimes I’ll wave at them, if I’m in a good mood I might give them lunch. I think some of them are quite surprised to see me.

“Having religion is good, I’ve been blessed with so much. I know someone is always there trying to look after me when I’m playing rugby.”

These days, of course, he’s accustomed to all that English weather and English rugby can throw at him. It wasn’t always so.

“Back home most pitches are like Tarmac because of the extreme heat. The ground is very coarse and full of rocks,” he once said. “It makes me laugh when a game is cancelled in England because the ground is too hard. Tongan conditions toughen you up as a player.”

At Mowden Park – they of The Northern Echo Arena – he’s scored four tries in 23 appearances this season and once been named man of the match.

Obviously he misses home – “especially my mother, especially birthdays and Christmas” – only returning once every three years. The real sadness, however, is that he and Catherine are no longer together. “It’s me, not her,” he insists.

“My daughter is seven, I always want to be around her. I want to do my very best to see her grow up and have a good life. I think my future is here.”

The No 79 travels four times a day in each direction, embracing half-hidden villages like Gayles, Dalton, Ravensworth and Barningham – even detouring through the hamlet of Whashton if the passenger asks nicely – – barely having anything to do with the A66 which seeks at speed to divide Durham from North Yorkshire.

“Vee’s hugely popular with the regulars,” says Richard Davies. “He’s always there to help the old ladies with their shopping, or to get them on or off the bus. He really can’t do enough for people but I wouldn’t like to meet him on the rugby field. It must be like tackling a train.”

Though occasionally venturing onto the Newton Aycliffe town service, he’s said to spend most of his working days on the 79. With or without him, it’s delightful.