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The Wallabies were thinking of signing another Marika Koroibete or Lote Tuqiri. Instead, they’re unsure what to do with the No.6 winger in Australia.
This upcoming tour of Europe with the Wallabies was to be a tour de force for Suliasi Vunivalu to show off all his powerful improvements as a rugby winger.
Instead, coach Dave Rennie made a tough decision… there are better wingers and no room for Vunivalu.
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Rennie is to be admired because he made this call on pure form, not on having to choose Rugby Australia’s highly paid import from rugby league.
Australia’s top winger Koroibete isn’t even available for this five-test tour but Vunivalu have still failed to secure a spot.
Andrew Kellaway, Jordan Petaia, Tom Wright and fast improver Mark Nawaqanitawase were favored as wingers on this trip. All of them have a versatility to play in two positions that Vunivalu does not have either.
The big question is where does that leave Vunivalu for the Rugby World Cup a year from now, he will have no European rugby experience in the offing.
If we’re being brutally honest, he’s now in big trouble to make the France squad.
He played a total of three minutes in Test rugby against England at SCG when Rennie had him in the squad for nine Tests this season.
Its launch as a starter has been delayed more often than the Artemis 1 moon rocket yet to take off in the United States.
Vunivalu is a popular member of the Wallabies and Queensland Reds teams. All admire his athletic qualities, his running, his high ball catches and his silky touches.
Rennie just doesn’t see those impacts enough over 80 minutes. Vunivalu’s work rate and ability to get involved off the wing just hasn’t increased enough.
The Australian A team’s tour of Japan aimed to showcase their winning skills in three matches. Instead, he did it for Nawaqanitawase.
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The fool’s rule of thumb is always that NRL converts, even with a rugby pedigree like Vunivalu, can all make the jump as quickly as Tuqiri.
In 2003, he went from making his NSW Waratahs debut to scoring a try in a Rugby World Cup final for the Wallabies in just 10 months.
People forget too quickly that Koroibete was at sea for much of his first rugby season in 2017. When he found the switch, his transition to the world championship title was astonishing. He is now clearly the Wallabies’ best player.
Can Vunivalu find the switch? You hope so.
He was part acrobat when he caught a high ball from Bryce Hegarty for a try at the Reds last year. In Osaka last Friday there was a nice offload on Seru Uru in the opening minutes. In Tokyo in the series opener, he caught a cross kick from Ben Donaldson, stayed active in the next phase of play, and pounced with a spinning motion.
It’s more like that. You feel like shouting at the screen to keep Vunivalu involved. Alas, these are only moments.
Nawaqanitawase came from the clouds and really grabbed the open wing spot for the tour. He’s toughened up, says Australian coach A Jason Gilmore. There’s a lot more substance to it than when trumpeted too early in 2020.
In Tokyo, there was a charming back and forth and dummy dangling the ball to confuse classy Japanese Test winger Kotaro Matsushima for a quality try.
In Osaka, the game was already lost in the 79th minute when Nawaqanitawase came out from the wing, demanded the ball and drilled through two defenders where no hole existed. He got a second touch and assisted a Dylan Pietsch score.
This is where Vunivalu lost their touring spot. Coming out of his wing to get involved and a second touch just don’t come as naturally to him as they should.
There are no hidden messages to this. Vunivalu has just been beaten to a place by a more efficient player.
If Vunivalu wants him enough there is a way back but it’s up to him and an unstoppable Super Rugby Pacific 2023 campaign. He just needs to find that switch.
Rennie made another big call in the back row. Langi Gleeson, the youngest on tour at 21, trumped Harry Wilson for an airplane seat.
Gleeson was the discovery of the Australia A program. He added another half season to his education playing all six games in Fiji and Japan.
His turn-and-break runs were impossible to ignore when that’s the motto of Test Rugby these days.
There’s more finesse to Wilson’s game with his offloads and close-to-the-tryline skills. His running game isn’t about lack of energy or candor. He still doesn’t always show his feet on the line to break through and can often be the toughest forward to attack solidly by two defenders.
It’s tough for Wilson, 23, who was left at home last year to develop his body and game when the Wallabies headed to Europe.
Now the 12 Test backrower misses the only other chance he had to experience European conditions ahead of the Rugby World Cup in France.
He has so many advantages that you hope he finds that extra little trick in his run to Super Rugby Pacific and convinces Rennie that he should be in the World Cup squad.