Back in 2005, Lesley Vainikolo scored 34 tries in 23 rugby league matches for Bradford Bulls. As his current strike rate for Gloucester is a mere one try per game, it might be argued that he has been in decline ever since he arrived in union. There again, Brian Ashton's glass is always half-full when it comes to 13-a-siders trying their hand at the "other" code, and if Vainikolo plays all five fixtures in the Six Nations Championship and crosses the line once each time, the England head coach will be more than happy.
Born in Nuku'alofa, the capital of Tonga, in the spring of 1979, the man nicknamed "The Volcano" moved to Auckland as a young child, excelled at a range of sports and was quick enough to compete for New Zealand in the World Junior Athletics Championships, where he ran the 100 metres in a very acceptable 10.8 seconds. Lured from union to league as a teenager, he won international honours for his adopted country before landing with a resounding thud in the broad acres of Yorkshire.
Had he played union for the All Blacks he would not now be eligible for England but, under International Rugby Board regulations, accomplishments in another sport – even one as closely related as league – are no barrier to Test representation. Even though Vainikolo has yet to be granted a British passport, he qualifies for red rose duty on residential grounds.
He scored five tries on his Premiership debut for Gloucester but has suffered difficulties since, injuring his neck in his second league outing and then receiving news from home that his brother had died. He returned to New Zealand again last week to deal with another family emergency, and is not due back for a few days. "I hope his Six Nations squad selection gives him a lift," said Dean Ryan, the Gloucester coach, who signed him on a three-year deal in May.
Ashton certainly expects Vainikolo to give England a lift. "He's 6t 2in and well over 17st," he said. "We haven't seen too many wings built along those lines."
What about the reports from Bradford suggesting that he has dodgy knees? "I think you should ask those he plays against how dodgy his knees are."
It was a sound answer. People used to wonder whether another New Zealand-raised Tongan – a chap by the name of Lomu – was as fit as he might be. One way or another, those questions tended to be answered.Reuse content