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Suliasi Vunivalu on World Cup 'gamble' and tough talk with Eddie Jones

By AAP
Suliasi Vunivalu of Australia reacts after scoring a try during the match between France and Australia at Stade de France on August 27, 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)

Suliasi Vunivalu has lifted the lid on his big contract “gamble” and how he learned to speak up to save his rugby career.

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The winger will start for the Queensland Reds in Saturday’s Super Rugby Pacific trial game against Western Force at Ballymore, one of just two hit-outs for new coach Les Kiss before round one.

However, the Melbourne Storm premiership winger could easily have been back in the NRL, or plying his trade in European or Japanese rugby, if not for a brave decision made in May.

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“My manager just told me, ‘Look mate, this is going to be a gamble’,” the 28-year-old told AAP ahead of his fourth season at Ballymore.

“(He said) ‘You’ve got a new coach coming in and the World Cup in front of us, so what do you want to do? You could be earning this much at this (overseas) club, or do you want to stay there and give it a try?’

“He gave me a week to think about it … and I went, ‘You know what, I’m going to gamble this and if I get to a World Cup or not, so be it’.”

Vunivalu had just a few minutes of Test experience to his name at that point, but was one of the big winners in Eddie Jones’s ill-fated short reign.

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Backed by the controversial coach despite an underwhelming start against South Africa, Vunivalu starred in a warm-up Test loss to France.

He then made the most of a bench role in a campaign he admits he enjoyed, “apart from the team’s results”.

Signed until at least the end of next season, a fully fit Vunivalu has put three years of confidence and health issues behind him and is targeting a big role for the Wallabies in next year’s British and Irish Lions visit.

“I can get so much better and that’s on my mind,” he said.

“It doesn’t come around often. It’s something to sit back when you’re older to say you played them.”

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Doors are opening too, with Mark Nawaqanitawase  – preferred on the wing ahead of him in France – set to defect to rugby league at the end of this season, and fellow Fijian-born winger Marika Koroibete nearing the end of his Test career.

Vunivalu said frank discussions with Jones had benefited him and set the foundation with new boss Kiss, himself a former rugby league winger, particularly regarding his strength and conditioning program.

“I guess I just had to speak up,” he said.

“If I’m zipping it, it’s creating problems.”

All six of the Reds’ World Cup representatives will start against the Force, who will play Waratahs recruit and World Cup utility Ben Donaldson at No.10 in an afternoon clash made up of 30-minute thirds.

Fellow recruit Nic White (shoulder) hasn’t travelled to Brisbane, with Australia’s World Cup bolter Issak Fines-Leleiwasa to start at No.9 instead.

Star recruit Taniela Tupou will come off the bench for new club Melbourne Rebels when they host the Waratahs at Moorabbin Rugby Club on Saturday afternoon.

“We know with Taniela once he’s happy, he gets on with rugby,” Rebels coach Kevin Foote said.

“He’s a big protector and we want to make sure that he feels like he’s got his role in this team.”

Lachlan Hooper will partner Wallabies brother Tom for the first time at the ACT Brumbies, with coach Stephen Larkham naming a host of under-19 graduates in a 33-man squad to play Fijian Drua in Canberra on Saturday night.

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