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Doubts of a Wallaby: The maligned cross-code star who fought through tears to make Eddie's RWC campaign

18th August, 2023
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18th August, 2023
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For days – and nights – Suliasi Vunivalu would sit by himself and cry.

Lost. Shattered. Angry. Vunivalu, hamstrung by consecutive long-term hamstring injuries after his high-profile move to rugby from the Melbourne Storm, felt alone and soberly contemplated that his career might be over.

“There were times I’d cry,” Vunivalu told The Roar.

“I’d doubt myself.

“I thought I was done with my hamstring, and I wouldn’t be the same player as I am.

“But my parents are always talking to me and telling me to keep my head up, praying for me.”

Seemingly those prayers were answered.

Suli Vunivalu says he cried regularly during the early stages of his rugby transition. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

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Vunivalu, 27, having finally found trust in his body once more found the coach he needed.

After being dispensed with by Dave Rennie, following a promising three-minute cameo in Sydney against England, Jones, cattle prod and all, gave the athletic winger the confidence he was looking for.

“I thought I was done. Thanks to Eddie – he probably see something in me that I haven’t seen yet,” Vunivalu said.

“I have to keep working hard. That what he always says, ‘keep working hard. There’s always going to be some injuries and we need the next man up when you get a call.”

Vunivalu was doing his washing when the phone eventually rung ahead of the Wallabies’ World Cup squad announcement.

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As the clock struck 5pm, Vunivalu thought he was no chance of being called up for Jones’ World Cup campaign.

“I thought I might as well unpack my bag and put them aside, I’m not getting a call,” he said.

“At five o’clock I got Webby’s [team manager Chris Webb] call. I was over the moon. I didn’t actually tell anyone. I kept it to myself. I don’t want to put pressure on myself. We weren’t allowed to tell anyone, so we had to wait until the media puts it out there.”

Not even his family?

“I didn’t tell anyone. No, not even my family,” he said.

“I was too excited.

“I thought I wouldn’t make the team because I played just one Test this year. When I played in South Africa, I told everyone. I was over the moon. But I thought this time I might as well keep this to myself and let them find out themselves.”

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Suli Vunivalu bursts through the line at a Wallabies training session at the Territory Rugby Stadium on August 11, 2023 in Darwin. (Photo by Mark Brake/Getty Images for Rugby Australia)

Vunivalu is arguably the most maligned player in Jones’ World Cup squad.

The Fijian-born winger came with a reputation of scoring tries and was lured across to the XV-man game by Scott Johnson for his match-winning ability.

While the tries have flowed – Vunivalu has the highest scoring rate of any Reds player with 14 five-pointers in 27 Super Rugby matches – the striking winger has looked like a fish out of water at times.

Nor has Vunivalu, a two-time NRL premiership-winner with the Melbourne Storm, roved and strut around the field hunting for the ball and searching for work like Mark Nawaqanitawase nor Digby Ioane before him.

Those struggles were on display last month, as Vunivalu was calved up by a man much smaller than him as Kurt-Lee Arendse beat him on the outside in Pretoria during the Springboks’ stunning first-up win over the Wallabies to kick-start The Rugby Championship.

Vunivalu, too, knows he’s got his fair share of critics, but he says it’s his coaches that he’s listening to.

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“I actually just put that to the side,” Vunivalu says.

“I’ve had family members telling me about comments. I really don’t care. What I carry is what the coaches tell me. If I’m somewhere on the field, that’s exactly where the coach is telling me. That’s what I’ve been training for.

“It’s easier sitting on the couch and pausing play every single thing and saying where I should be, and it’s harder on the field. The reason why I’m in the squad is I’m doing everything the coaches say and I’ll keep doing it.”

So how reassuring is it having his coach’s backing?

“It means a lot,” Vunivalu said.

“For a coach that’s going into his fifth World Cup now, he’s done everything, and he always tells us that we’re a special team. ‘I see what you guys are capable of in this World Cup.’

“For myself, him seeing something in me motivates me. Even though I’m not picked, I still feel like I’m happy to be in the team. But whenever there’s an opportunity, I swear I’ll come and take it with both hands.”

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Suli Vunivalu spreads his wings after being selected in Eddie Jones’ Wallabies Rugby World Cup Squad at Darwin Waterfront on August 10, 2023 in Darwin. (Photo by Mark Brake/Getty Images for Rugby Australia)

What Jones seemingly sees in Vunivalu is a match-winner.

It might seem like an eternity, but it was less than three years ago that Vunivalu showed the awareness to pounce on a floating ball and power into the air and have the balance, strength and power and pace to run the length of Stadium Australia to score a stunning try in the 2020 NRL Grand Final.

Vunivalu believes he still has that type of performance left in him and that he rises for the big occasion.

“I do. I do feel like I’ve got more in me. I’ve felt like that’s not myself,” he said.

“I play well on the big stage. Being out for one and a half years with my hamstring, I use my leg to run, but I feel so much better this year how I played compared to the last couple of years. I need to play more games to get more understanding of it.”

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Vunivalu says the four days away in Arnhem Land were vital in bringing the squad together.

There, at 1am, he, the “skip” Will Skelton and Tom Hooper went out catching crayfish and spearfishing. “We got five,” he says with a grin.

“It was so important for the group to connect back to the landowners, and just to be together without any phones, without anything, to be grateful about everything we have,” he said.

Vunivalu knows he’s gone to Paris with no promises to start.

But if he gets onto the field, he’s eager to take his chance, especially with his two young children watching on from home.

“It’d be massive, mate,” he said. “I know everyone will be watching, especially my family and friends. I’m holding on my excitement. I don’t want to jinx it.

“They always yell at the TV: ‘daddy, daddy’s on the TV’.”

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