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Vunivalu signing raises questions about rugby recruitment tactics

Suliasi Vunivalu still had seven stitches in a cut under his eye when he played for Fiji at Eden Park three weeks after being king hit in a Bali nightclub but he insisted he was never going to miss the Test against Samoa.

"It was just a big cut and we get that in rugby - you get big cuts, you stitch it and you run back in," Vunivalu told NRL.com after belting out the hymn "Jesus is the Winner Man" with his victorious teammates in the Fiji dressing room

"There are heaps of kids back home and in Australia who are Fijian that want to play for Fiji Bati now. That is why I always want to put on this white and black jumper and represent my family back home whenever I get the opportunity."

The 24-year-old Storm winger grew up in the tiny Fijian village of Bagasau but after signing a two-year deal reportedly worth $1.8 million with Rugby Australia and the Queensland Reds, he is set to wear a gold jersey from 2021.

It is unclear when RA recruiters decided to target a Fijian who only moved to Australia to play in the NRL but under World Rugby’s eligibility rules, Vunivalu qualifies for the Wallabies on residency grounds.

Suliasi Vunivalu representing Fiji at the 2017 World Cup.
Suliasi Vunivalu representing Fiji at the 2017 World Cup. ©NRL Photos

"He is one player we have been looking at very closely this year with the skill-set we are looking for in the outside backs," RA director of rugby Scott Johnson said in a media release.

"He has been working in a great environment at the Storm and has chosen a future in rugby, so it is a great result for the game."

Contrast that view with the reaction to Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga’s decision to select another Fijian winger, Semi Radradra, in 2016 that sparked changes to the International Rugby League’s eligibility rules.

Then Fiji coach Mick Potter accused the Kangaroos of "cherry-picking" the best Pacific Islanders who were eligible for Australia because they played for an NRL club.

Kiwis coach Stephen Kearney said: "I’d be a little bit disappointed if I was born in Australia and playing in one of those positions and I don’t get picked if I’ve done the job for Australia before."

The same could be said of the wingers in the Junior Wallabies team which lost the final of this year's Under 20s world championships or other aspiring Australian rugby union players after RA's recruitment of Vunivalu.

The issue isn't that Vunivalu is changing codes but that RA decided to persuade him to switch countries to bolster the ranks of the Wallabies.

Rugby union players have been lured to league since the code began but never with a view to them changing national allegiances.

The IRL and NRL are focused are strengthening the Pacific nations with more regular Tests and eligibility rules that encourage players to represent their countries of heritage.

Rugby players have been lured to league since the code began but never with a view to them changing national allegiances.

Under IRL residency rules introduced in 2016 after the fall-out from Radradra's selection, a player must live in a country for the preceding 60 months to qualify for that nation and then need to reside there for a minimum of 210 days per year to remain eligible.

State of Origin eligibility rules were also tightened to prevent NSW and Queensland selecting players who moved to Australia to join NRL clubs after New Zealand-born prop James Tamou was chosen for the Blues in 2012.

Players are now only eligible for NSW or Queensland if they lived in that state before the age of 14.

The changes to the game’s eligibility rules coincided with the NRL’s introduction of the mid-season Pacific Test in 2013 and led to the rise of Tonga, who upset New Zealand at the 2017 World Cup and triumphed over Great Britain and Australia at the end of last season.

Marika Koroibete during his days with the Storm.
Marika Koroibete during his days with the Storm. ©NRL Photos

Fiji also beat the Kiwis at the 2017 to reach the semi-finals at their third consecutive World Cup, while Papua New Guinea - who last month stunned Great Britain - and Samoa made the quarter-finals.

In contrast, none of the Pacific nations advanced beyond their pools at the recent Rugby World Cup in Japan, while England, France, New Zealand and Australia all boasted Samoan, Tongan or Fijian born players.

Among them was former Wests Tigers and Storm winger, Marika Koroibete, who was among a handful of Fiji rugby league players forced to spend a night in emergency accommodation near London’s Heathrow Airport after the 2013 World Cup as he did not have a visa to return to Australia.

Koroibete, who had to walk 20km to school each day from his family’s farm in Fiji, missed the start of 2014 pre-season training with the Tigers due to his visa problems.

Six years after he was refused entry into Australia, Koroibete last month won the John Eales Medal as the Wallabies player of the year.

Another Fiji-born back Samu Kerevi, who was Australia’s Super Rugby player of the year, was second to Koroibete in voting for the John Eales Medal and the pair are now set to be joined in the Wallabies ranks by Vunivalu, who will remain with the Storm until the end of next season.

Vunivalu, who completed high school in Auckland after being awarded a rugby union scholarship at 16, made his Telstra Premiership debut for the Storm in 2016 and after signing with the club he bought his parents a television so they could watch him play.

He has made 94 appearances for the Storm, scoring 46 tries in his first 47 matches in 2016 and 2017 to earn a place in the club’s 20-year team and a further 26 tries in the past two seasons.

However, Melbourne could not match the RA offer that will make Vunivalu the highest-paid winger in either code and despite his passion for Fiji he has now been convinced to switch allegiances to Australia.

 

The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.