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'Tough to support him': How Suli must change his game to fight back from shocking brain snap

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21st May, 2024
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When Suliasi Vunivalu first entered Wallabies camp in November 2020 he arrived with an “aura” that swept up his teammates.

Three and half years later the former NRL star finds himself a laughing stock after an embarrassing two yellow cards for trips against Fijian Drua resulted in a one match ban.

To describe his Test career as a disappointment doesn’t go close to nailing how big a flop Vunivalu has been since arriving on the high of a try in a NRL grand final win for the Storm.

He has put a lot of his early struggles down to then-coach Dave Rennie and his focus on the winger’s pace. “Every interview (with Rennie) was just based on speed, speed, speed,” he said.

“It put pressure on me; I started getting my technique wrong and I kept pulling my hamstring.

“I struggled mentally, dealing with serious back-to-back injuries for the first time, I didn’t have confidence getting back and running full speed.

“I’ve never been that guy, I never hit top speed until game day… I’d been focused too much on trying to get my speed back, I forgot about the footy.

Suliasi Vunivalu. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

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“Now that’s behind me… I just want the footy in my hands again.”

Rennie’s exit might have helped Vunivalu relaunch. His successor Eddie Jones brought a cattle prod along to Wallabies camp to try provoke a response and used him during the World Cup, but he too failed to get the impact he really wanted.

His state coaches Brad Thorn and now Les Kiss have persisted with him but no one has been able to help him flourish to full potential.

There have been flashes but also too many times he’s gone missing. The double brain fart against the Drua seems a last straw. The ludicrous nature of his suspension feels like rock bottom. It’s hard to imagine Joe Schmidt, a disciplinarian first and foremost, finding a place in his ranks for such a risky player barring injuries to rivals.

Matt To’omua, a co-host of The Roar Rugby Podcast, this week recalled Vunivalu’s arrival in the Wallabies set up.

“I remember when he came into the Wallabies camp and he had this aura about him,” said To’omua. “We were super excited as current players. I remember seeing him up in Sanctuary Cove and we just couldn’t wait for him to kind of join and unfortunately, for whatever reasons, it just hasn’t worked out.

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“No one’s probably more frustrated than him, but as a fan, you just wish a guy like that had a bit more luck, or whatever it is.”

To’omua was as surprised as everyone when Vunivalu went for two yellow cards for the same offence last weekend.

“The first one, the fact that it was a penalty try as well, I was like, geez, you never see that,” said To’omua. “And then in the second half to have another one, it’s a tough one.

“The first one, he’s clearly been wrong-footed and he’s just trying to get the guy down. Obviously, you don’t plan that. It’s instinctual. So, he’s been wrong-footed and he’s somehow trying to get him down and he throws the foot out.

“To do it again, though, makes you go, geez, mate, I don’t know. When you’ve been stepped, you’ve been stepped. It’s obviously just poor technique in many ways.

“Suli’s making it tough to support him, unfortunately, in the last couple of years.”

The bemusement was mirrored by the panel on Stan Sport’s Between Two Posts this week, with Sean Maloney, Stephen Hoiles and Morgan Turinui barely able to contain their laughter over the double yellows.

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Hoiles said his various rugby WhatsApp groups “were going off” and he suggested the pressure of being back in his country of birth might have affected the Reds winger.

“I keep a real close eye when Fijians go back and play against Fijian dominated teams and it’s never easy for them,” said Hoiles.

“There is a form of responsibility or pressure on a boy that’s left and become a superstar. It’s a massive burden.”

But Vunivalu’s rugby struggles are nothing new and not confined to the Fijian islands.

To’omua, who described the Reds winger as a “lovely guy”, wondered if he was proactive enough.

“I think shows that big name wingers, it’s not always easy that transition from rugby league. If you look at like Caleb Clarke at the moment, he’s toyed between rugby league and rugby union and he’s sticking with rugby for the time being.

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“He’s playing with so much confidence. He comes off his wing, he goes hunting for the ball, he storms onto it first phase from set piece and continually breaks the line.

(Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

“You look at a guy like Marika [Koroibete] and he’s shown how someone can jump over from league into rugby and really excel.

“And he excels in all sorts of things. You watch a game and how often do you say your left winger’s defence was incredible, but he will dominate defence.

“He’ll go and pick and drive. He just shows so much effort.

“And I guess that’s easy to get behind. With Suli, he’s such a patient player. Sometimes we want to see a little bit more proactive kind of searching for the ball and maybe making a few mistakes here or there.”

To’omua stressed that he was choosing his words carefully because Vunivalu is “a lovely guy.”

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“No one’s probably more frustrated than him. He knows his potential. He believes in himself and he accepted a much lower contract to stay on to try and push for more selections. It sucks a little bit, but that’s just the way it is sometimes.”

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