In a major boost for the Wallabies’ World Cup hopes, flying winger Suliasi Vunivalu has turned down offers to return to the NRL by signing a one-year extension with Rugby Australia.
The 26-year-old two-time NRL premiership-winner had previously been heavily linked to Wayne Bennett’s Redcliffe Dolphins, but the tryscoring machine wants to play at a Rugby World Cup.
While he signed a massive two-year deal worth an estimated $700,000 under former director of rugby Scott Johnson, it’s understood he has taken a considerable haircut to stay in the game for a chance to play in next year’s tournament in France.
But by only re-signing for one year, Vunivalu has left all doors open for his next move.
Should, as expected, he star on the international stage, he will command massive dollars overseas and could yet either stay with the Queensland Reds with an eye on the British and Irish Lions in 2025 or make a return to the NRL.
Either way, it’s a good bit of business from both parties, with Vunivalu’s management playing some “cat and mouse”, according to sources.
His retention is expected to be confirmed over the next week.
On Sunday, Vunivalu took one giant step towards making his Test debut after being named in Dave Rennie’s 35-man Wallabies squad for the three-match Test series against Eddie Jones’ England.
After a frustrating two seasons with the Reds, where the giant winger has been continually hampered by a series of hamstring injuries, Vunivalu finally showed off his freakish skills over the past month.
He starred against the Blues at Eden Park during a tough night for the Reds and then scored in their quarter-final loss to the Crusaders in Christchurch.
Although his inclusion in Rennie’s squad raised some eyebrows who questioned what the winger had done in the game, the Fijian’s potential is huge.
Some Wallabies sources believe Vunivalu is physically the most gifted athlete to ever play in Australian rugby.
Vunivalu, however, is not certain to line-up against England on July 2.
But he has been named in the squad so Wallabies staff can manage his every step, with his hamstrings building strength after being a mess in the NRL where he continually played despite nursing injuries throughout his successful stint at the Melbourne Storm.
“It’s not so much about capping Suli,” Rennie said on Sunday.
“We’ve picked him because he has massive potential, we think we can accelerate his development within the camp rather than leaving him outside of that.
“He’s had his troubles with injury, we’ve seen glimpses of real quality and we’re just keen to get our hands on him and accelerate that.”
Should he play against England though, he will follow in the footsteps of Marika Koroibete and Israel Folau in making successful cross-code switches.
Folau scored an incredible double on the wing for the Wallabies against the British and Irish Lions in 2013, before moving to fullback where he went on to win three John Eales Medals.
Koroibete, who now plays under Robbie Deans in Japan, was described as the world’s best winger by Rennie last week and won the John Eales Medal in 2019.
In just his second Test – and first in the run-on side – he scored a double in the Wallabies’ draw in South Africa.
Whether Vunivalu plays or not against England, Rennie believes he will succeed.
“We’re going to have 14 Tests this year, so there’s a lot of footy to be played,” Rennie said.
“We genuinely believe he’s good enough to play at that level.
“That’s the decision we made, have him in the group and have our eye on him day after day.”