Vainikolo adds substance to the spectacular

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The Independent Online

In his three seasons in Britain, Lesley Vainikolo has become perhaps the most instantly recognisable player in Super League. Going into next Saturday's Grand Final against Leeds, the evidence of this year is that he is also just about the most effective.

There is no mistaking the Bradford Bulls winger. Nobody else has his combination of hulking size and startling pace, let alone his repertoire of bizarre hairstyles or extravagant after-try celebrations. It is difficult now to remember that Vainikolo spent much of his first season at Bradford two years ago widely regarded as something of a liability. Everyone in the game knew that a kick towards him - especially a low, skidding kick that made him turn - was likely to pay a dividend.

"It seems a long time ago now, but I owe a lot to the coaches who have stayed behind with me after training to work on my weaknesses," he says. "I still have things I have to work on."

Maybe, but this season has been notable not for any memorable blunders, but for remarkable feats of try-scoring. Until 2004, the most anyone had managed in Super League was 29; Vainikolo's 36 has not only left that far behind, but also edged out Leeds' Danny McGuire, who led the way for most of the campaign.

Typically of a player who is as self-effacing off the field as he is the natural showman on it, The Volcano gives much of the credit to the players alongside him, especially the centre Shontayne Hape.

"I'm blessed with the people around me," Vainikolo says. "Shontayne and I work well together; apart from scoring tries, we like to think that no one can get through us either. He should be in the New Zealand team for the way he's played. He just goes out there and gives it his all."

Vainikolo calls Hape the best centre he has played alongside - not a bad tribute when you consider that he first emerged at Canberra playing outside one of the genuine Kiwi heroes of recent years, Ruben Wiki.

The change of culture from the Australian capital to Bradford could have wrong-footed him. "But Joe Vagana and his family took me under their wing and made me feel at home," he says.

Then there was Tevita Vaikona, who shares his Tongan heritage and his role as a winger. For a couple of years, the two were a double act, with most Bradford fans probably of the opinion that Vaikona's work-rate and solidity made him marginally the more valuable player.

But now he is off to Saracens, and Vainikolo is indisputably the No 1 man, with his coach, Brian Noble, paying as much tribute to his willingness to help out his forwards in the middle of the park as to his try-scoring. His naming as Bradford's player of the year last week was in recognition of both aspects of his play.

"If you can help out the boys and give them a bit of a lift, it's as good a feeling as scoring a try," Vainikolo says. Nevertheless, it is for his ability to get over the try-line and his celebrations thereafter that he inevitably catches the eye.

In fact, he believes he has toned it down a little this season. "Sometimes I have something planned and someone else does it first. I wouldn't want them to think I was copying them. Whatever I do, the meaning of it is always the same. I'm thanking the Man Above for showing me the way to run or for giving me the strength to go through a gap."

From that, you will have grasped that Vainikolo is very devout, as seems to be the norm among Polynesian rugby players. There will be the usual prayers and Bible readings before the kick-off at Old Trafford and if, as statistics suggest he will, he crosses the Leeds line, the routine he goes through - opening up the ball like a coconut to drink its milk is an enduring favourite - will be for the benefit of his God.

The more immediate beneficiaries will be the Bulls, who have shown unmistakable signs in the past few weeks of hitting the form required to retain their title at exactly the right time.

Old Trafford will be packed to capacity for the first-ever all-Yorkshire Grand Final on Saturday, to see whether they can do it - a fitting stage for a player who is now as effective as he is entertaining.