Wallabies wing opens up on mental demons after working with Rennie
SPOTLIGHT: Suliasi Vunivalu has revealed how Dave Rennie’s training demands almost drove him out of rugby as he prepares to live up to new Wallabies coach Eddie Jones’ expectations.
The Queensland Reds wing will play his first game of the Super Rugby Pacific season in Melbourne on Sunday against the Western Force.
It will be just his 15th cap since the two-time NRL champion switched from the Melbourne Storm after the 2020 season, an ankle complaint keeping Vunivalu out of last week’s Round One loss to the Hurricanes.
That came after constant hamstring injuries ruled him out of more than half of the Reds’ fixtures over the past two years.
Finally fit again last year, he spent the entire home Test season in Wallabies camp but played just three minutes in his sole appearance.
Former Australian coach Rennie had demanded Vunivalu go “balls out” in training to prove he was ready.
But Vunivalu was eventually dropped for the Wallabies’ tour of Europe and then not included in a 44-man squad that gathered the week before Rennie was replaced in January.
Vunivalu, who signed a one-year deal keeping him on Rugby Australia’s books until after September’s World Cup, detailed how that obsession with his pace had spooked him.
“Every interview [with Rennie] was just based on speed, speed, speed,” he told AAP on Friday.
“It put pressure on me; I started getting my technique wrong and I kept pulling my hamstring.
“I struggled mentally, dealing with serious back-to-back injuries for the first time, I didn’t have confidence getting back and running full speed.
“I’ve never been that guy, I never hit top speed until game day … I’d been focused too much on trying to get my speed back, I forgot about the footy.
“Now that’s behind me … I just want the footy in my hands again.”
Vunivalu was a rugby-playing child in Fiji and continued with his first love after moving to New Zealand before the Storm pounced.
The 27-year-old was honest when asked if he’d fallen out of love with the sport since the move to Ballymore.
“I was feeling like that in [Wallabies] camp. All I could see was that next week I would be holding pads again [and not playing] and I know some of the other Reds boys felt the same,” he said.
“We felt if we weren’t playing we’d rather come back and play club footy.
“I was being pushed down the line; it gave me head noise and I started thinking: ‘Am I supposed to be here?’.”
Vunivalu enjoyed the Reds’ off-season tour of Japan and is aware of Jones’ praise, the coach telling AAP last week the wing’s “got it” and could jump the selection queue under his watch.
Jones also acknowledged Vunivalu’s concerns about over-training during the week, saying each player’s preparation should be different.
“It’s good to hear him say that and has the same thinking,” Vunivalu said.
“He’s had a history, likes his league players. But I’m not going to stick by that thinking it’ll be spoon-fed to me,” Vunivalu said of Jones, who had NRL trio Matt Rogers, Wendell Sailor and Lote Tuqiri in his 2003 World Cup squad.
“I have to put in work to get him to pick me.”