Wallabies’ World Cup hopeful Suliasi Vunivalu says he went “into my shell and struggled” when he suffered a second significant hamstring injury, but has hailed the high performance guru who has restored his fitness and confidence.
The former Melbourne Storm NRL star signed a one-year contract extension on Tuesday that will take him through to the end of the World Cup next year.
It has been a rough road with injury for the high-profile code hopper, who freely admits he’s still got a lot to learn about the XV man game, but he’s embracing the current Sunshine Coast camp with confidence, hopeful his ongoing hamstring strains are now behind him.
Asked if the injuries had been mentally tough for him to deal with, Vunivalu replied: “100 percent – last year was a goal to play really good footy and make the Wallabies and that cut short.
“When I did my second hamstring I’ve gone back to my shell and struggled. This year it’s different, all the staff have been helping me throughout and that shows this season. I played six or seven games straight without feeling any tightness or anything.”
He praised the work of high performance manager Dean Benton, who has worked for many elite teams across various codes, including time at the Storm and Brumbies.
“I had Dean at the Storm that helped similar players with their hamstrings as well and I believe in his work, and I’ve worked with him after my second surgery for three months,” Vunivalu said.
“It’s been awesome working with him and I’ve never felt so good with my hamstring before.”
While he thinks his fitness might be sorted, the focus can now concentrate on improving his rugby union skill set.
“When you come up to this Wallabies camp they’ve watched every game that you’ve played and they have an idea what I can do more. They’ve told me to do a couple of things on the field. I’m really working hard on that this week and last week. Everything is going well.”
Such as? “Just looking at the ball, trying to stay busy all the time, being an option if you you’re not doing something, working from side to side to side. That’s something to focus on, and just trying to improve my contact.”
Teammate Marika Koroibete has been an additional coaching resource. His fellow Fijian also made the transition from the NRL at the Storm to the rugby and has become one of the world’s most damaging wingers.
“Since I first started he’s been the guy that I go to and ask him about tips,” Vunivalu said. “Knowing him, his work ethic on the field you can see for yourself.”
While Vunivalu said he had considered offers to switch back to league he wanted to see his dream of playing at a World Cup through.
“I haven’t played ay Tests for the Wallabies. I have been training well and I will back myself to make that goal,” he said. “I wanted to stay in Australia and my performance will speak for itself, if I am to stay here.
“I started playing rugby when I was a kid, we are all rugby fans back in Fiji. I have watched World Cups and that has always been a goal for me growing up, to play in a World Cup.
“I didn’t know I was going to end up in rugby league, leaving school. But then when I was there I was with Nelson (Asofa-Solomona), we always spoke about spending a couple of years in league and then trying to head back to rugby when we were age 24-25. It happened for me.”
Vunivalu’s adjustment period has been obvious in his limited game time, but he knows what he likes about his new code.
“Everything is contestable and you have licence to kick whereas in league you really can’t kick,” he said. “If you catch it from the back you have to run it straight into the wall of defence. You can roam around, you don’t have to stay on your wing, you can roam around and work.
“I have been working on my kicking game since last year, with [James] O’Connor and the boys. I don’t really kick on my left, I kick on my right, which is my good side.”
He’s been well supported by another code hopper – coach Brad Thorn at the Reds.
“He understands, he has been in that position as well,” said Vunivalu. “The first couple of games I was a bit rusty and a bit nervous, after my second surgery. He was always supportive, looking after me.”
Now he’s in the hands of Dave Rennie, who said he picked him in the 35-man squad “because he has massive potential.”
“We think we can accelerate his development within the camp rather than leaving him outside of that. He’s had his troubles with injury, we’ve seen glimpses of real quality and we’re just keen to get our hands on him and accelerate that,” Rennie said when he announced the squad last week.
“We’re going to have 14 Tests this year so there’s a lot of footy to be played. We genuinely believe he’s good enough to play at that level. That’s the decision we made – have him in the group and have our eye on him day after day.”
The England series could yet come too soon for Vunivalu, and he might be brought in later down the line this winter to give his sensei Koroibete a rest.
But he feels ready to go.
“One hundred percent, I will back myself,” he said when asked if he could perform should Rennie give him game time against England.
“If he has that belief in me and wants to throw me in there and pick me, I will put my hand up and back myself to play.”