It was little surprise that Lesley Vainikolo qualifying for a British passport coincided with a call from Rob Andrew, the RFU’s director of elite rugby, whom the Gloucester and former Bradford Bulls and New Zealand rugby league wing failed to recognise. The gist of what Andrew told him, nevertheless, was ringingly clear – was he interested in representing his adopted country? “Of course,” was the newly qualified Englishman’s response.
Vainikolo broke the news to former Bradford teammates at a function before Christmas that “I’ve had the big boss man on, someone called Andrew and they want me to play for England”. Had Tonga called first, he would have had little hesitation in opting to represent his birthplace; they did not. Although Andrew was swift to act, the irony is that Vainikolo, unlike expensive cross-code recruits such as Jason Robinson, Henry Paul and Andy Farrell, was not on the RFU’s radar when he switched codes in July.
The 28-year-old’s purpose was twofold – to learn a new sport and extend a career that was beginning to be hindered by the attrition rate in rugby league. As for England, the thought of representing them had not crossed his mind.
When “The Volcano” erupted on the Guinness Premiership, though, with five tries on his Gloucester debut against a shell-shocked Leeds Carnegie in September – despite regular such feats in compiling a remarkable 149 tries during 152 appearances for Bradford – England, their World Cup campaign crumbling at that stage, glimpsed the potential of having the 17st powerhouse on board for the RBS Six Nations Championship.
Tevita Vaikona, a fellow Tongan and erstwhile Bradford teammate, used to joke about seeing Vainikolo running around his native Nuku’alofa “dressed in leaves”. On February 2, Vainikolo could be sporting his trade-mark beads in his hair at Twickenham against Wales after a voyage quite unlike any other cross-code player.
Brian Ashton, the England head coach, referred to Vainikolo’s “wow factor” in including him in his 32-man squad yesterday, controversially, considering the home-grown talent available, Vainikolo’s fledgeling union career, troublesome knees and state of mind after the recent deaths of his father and one of four union-playing brothers from a heart attack, aged 38, that have meant trips back to New Zealand in quick succession.
Ashton said: “His transition to union has been fairly straightforward. He doesn’t look like a league player playing union; it’s not a new game to him. You don’t see that many English wings of 6ft 2in and 17 stone. He’s due back in the country next week and you’ll have to talk to the guys who play against him and see how dodgy they think his knees are.
“He’s strong, explosive, a good and intelligent footballer. He has good footwork and he’s not been caught out defensively in union. He’s a tryscorer, a threat all over the field and he’s pretty quick as well. I’ve seen him playing in the centre in league. He’s pretty much the all-round package.
“I spoke to Lesley about three weeks ago, down at Gloucester, and he was very excited about the possibility [of playing for England].”
Knee surgery in the winter was a near annual occurrence for Vainikolo at Bradford, where for the last 18 months he barely trained because of the pain he was in after matches. He would skip half the week and just cycle and swim, yet without any compromise to his finishing prowess.
“The difference is he’d crawl off after a league match and these days he walks off the pitch,” Stuart Duffy, the Bradford club spokesman, said. “The physical toll is less severe and that means he can train fully. As for playing union internationally, that was the last thing on his mind when he left us.”
Gloucester and now England have invested in not only a try machine but a showman. He once appeared at a league Man of Steel ceremony in an electric-blue suit with cane and an exploding afro. Each of his tries is greeted with a kiss on the tip of the ball and quick prayer. The Bible is the dressing-room book of choice of a big man with a larger-than-life personality, whose plaits and braided ponytails are as much a feature as his bass-rumble guffaw. “Big Les will certainly enliven the England camp,” Duffy said.
Although from a family of union players, Vainikolo loved the impact of league. Mal Meninga, the Australia league legend, offered him a contract at Canberra Raiders after seeing him on the rampage for Tonga in the World Nines. He scored 35 tries in 68 NRL appearances before Bradford signed him at 22. There were times when The Volcano looked more likely to evaporate in a troubled first year in Yorkshire, before the tryscoring eruptions that marked the Bulls’ all-conquering 2003 season.
It is doubtful whether his feats in the British game would have been possible without the faith placed in him by Brian Noble, the former Bradford coach, who worked wonders on developing Vainikolo’s confidence and defensive ability. His strike rate in league was similar to that of the legendary Billy Boston at Wigan and included 14 tries in 12 appearances for New Zealand, nine on the Kiwis’ way to the 2000 World Cup final.
After his first international appearance, Vainikolo said: “I’d never seen so much money. I spread it out on the hotel bed, counting it to send some back home.” Tonga, Auckland, Canberra, Bradford, Gloucester, now England; it has been an amazing journey.
“It wouldn’t be the first time an overseas player has played for England,” Andrew said. “It happens round the world. We didn’t set the regulation, it’s set by the IRB. This guy wants to play for England and he’s eligible to play for England.
“We have the other issue around developing our own players, which is the union’s responsibility. There are talented young players, many of whom have been capped, and a huge amount of good work going on.”
England 32-man squad for RBS 6 Nations Championship:
Backs: I Balshaw (Gloucester), D Cipriani (Wasps), M Cueto (Sale Sharks), T Flood (Newcastle), A Gomarsall (Harlequins), C Hodgson (Sale Sharks), J Noon (Newcastle), P Richards (London Irish), P Sackey (Wasps), D Strettle (Harlequins), M Tait (Newcastle), M Tindall (Gloucester), R Wigglesworth (Sale Sharks), J Wilkinson (Newcastle), L Vainikolo (Gloucester).
Forwards: S Borthwick (Bath), T Croft (Leicester), G Chuter (Leicester), L Deacon (Leicester), N Easter (Harlequins), J Haskell (Wasps), B Kay (Leicester), L Mears (Bath), L Moody (Leicester), T Payne (Wasps), T Rees (Wasps), M Regan (Bristol), S Shaw (Wasps), A Sheridan (Sale Sharks), M Stevens (Bath), P Vickery (Wasps, capt), J Worsley (Wasps).
Source: The Times