The curious case of Suliasi Vunivalu has taken an intriguing new twist after Wallabies coach Eddie Jones name-dropped the former Storm winger in an interview this week.
The Wallabies appeared to have given up on Vunivalu when he was left off Dave Rennie’s extended squad last month, with the former Wallabies coach opting for Andrew Kellaway, Mark Nawaqanitawase, Jordan Petaia, Reece Hodge and Tom Wright in the absence of the Japan-based Marika Koroibete.
Vunivalu’s omission from the 44-player list appeared the strongest indication yet that the cross-code player had used up the goodwill afforded him during a disappointing three-season spell in Australian rugby. A career-best Super season appeared to be the Fijian back’s only hope of salvaging a three-minute Test career.
But all that changed when Jones singled out Vunivalu during a radio interview in Brisbane on Tuesday, naming the 27-year-old in a potential world-class back line.
“There’s a lot of good players in Australian rugby, you just look at the back line Australia could potentially have: [Samu] Kerevi, when he’s fit, [Len] Ikitau as centres; on the wing you’ve got [Marika] Koroibete, the Melbourne Storm boy Vunivalu on the wing, competing against … [Andrew] Kellaway,” Jones said.
“There’s a lot of good quality players there, particularly in the back line, to play that almost traditional, Australian rugby attacking style.”
Jones appeared to wipe the slate clean on Rennie’s selections, also mentioning Queensland players Tate McDermott (“every time I’ve seen him play for the Wallabies he’s made a difference to the game”), Harry Wilson (“a good physical player”) and Fraser McReight (“a very handy player”).
But it was the mention of Vunivalu that was significant, especially as the Reds back is off contract at the end of this year.
He was one of the most puzzling selection points of the Rennie era. Signed from the Storm for a reported $700,000 a year and a reputation as one of the most electric outside backs in both codes, twin hamstring injuries curtailed his impact in Queensland and delayed what his employers at Ballymore and Moore Park hoped would be an immediate Test career.
Vunivalu re-signed for 2023 and played well for the Reds, eventually making his debut for Australia in the deciding Test against England in July. But even that felt half-hearted from the coaches box, the winger given just three minutes to make his mark as the Wallabies chased the game.
Rennie was open about his reservations, saying during the England series that he wanted to see Vunivalu unleash his pace at training. It was reflective of a wider sense inside the management team that the winger was holding back because of his history of hamstring trouble.
Understandable, perhaps, but not a good match for a coach who worshipped the hard trainers in his group, like Koroibete and Michael Hooper.
Nevertheless, Vunivalu played the house down during a pre-season tour of Japan, scoring two tries and earning a player-of-match nod in a game against Robbie Deans’ Panasonic, who were missing many of their big names.
While the Reds were not yet resigned to losing him at the end of this year, his omission from Rennie’s first squad sent a clear message: he would have to convince the then-Wallabies coach that he was worth another chance.
Jones will be attracted to Vunivalu’s rugby league pedigree, having made Wallabies out of Mat Rogers, Wendell Sailor and Lote Tuqiri. He was also excited, three years ago, to return to the sport of his Fijian childhood, and is still highly regarded at the Storm.
There will be a large element of Jones wiping the slate clean on selections and letting it known he will make up his own mind about players. He said in his first media conference in Sydney that he would figure out a “hierarchy of No.10s”, for example.
With just eight months left before the World Cup, however, and five until the first of five lead-in Tests, Jones will make his assessments quickly.
He took a Zoom call with senior players on Tuesday night and will be at Super Rugby trials in Griffith (Brumbies v Waratahs) and Narrabri (Reds v Waratahs) over the next 10 days.
He may not get his hands on a Wallabies group for a multi-day camp until April, with six or seven rounds of competition to guide him on selection.
Meanwhile, former British Airways boss Rod Eddington will chair the board of the 2027 World Cup and 2029 women’s World Cup operating company.
World Rugby and Rugby Australia were expected to make the announcement on Thursday. Eddington chaired the advisory group attached to Australia’s bid and will head up a board of World Rugby and RA executives, plus a yet-to-be-announced managing director.
“Australia has built a reputation for hosting outstanding sporting and cultural events, and I know that the whole nation will rally with enthusiasm behind these Rugby World Cups,” Eddington said.
“By working together as a board, as the rugby family and as the nation, I believe that we will deliver what will be remembered as two of the great sporting events, Rugby World Cups that Australia will be proud of.”.