An up-close encounter with the world’s best club rugby outfit has only empowered NRL convert Suliasi Vunivalu.
The Queensland Reds winger was one of the few bright spots in a record 63-28 thumping from the Crusaders on Saturday.
The former Melbourne Storm premiership star narrowly missed his second straight try-scoring double while he also produced a booming clearance kick and jumped into the back of a ruck in a busy finish at Suncorp Stadium.
It was the 25-year-old’s second appearance and first start since a hamstring injury in late March, while he was also suspended by the club for the season-opener after a run-in with a hotel security guard.
Vunivalu, who described the Crusaders as a “champion side … playing a different game”, had every excuse to feel uncomfortable given he’s already playing a different game.
But, ahead of Saturday’s clash with the Chiefs in Townsville and with a Test debut against France in July beckoning, Vunivalu walked away pleased it is starting to come naturally.
“I’ve been really focusing on my kicking lately, so it was good to get one away and also get into the rucks, just doing what I’ve been told to do,” he said.
“If you feel like if you can get in there you’ve got a free pass to get around the field and go looking for the ball.
“It was really frustrating at the start of the season then once I got the groove back I got injured.
“Now I’m back in I can hopefully stay injury free and that’s (a Wallabies debut) the goal, so I’ll just keep working hard.”
Reds fullback Bryce Hegarty, who played rugby league with Brisbane’s under-20s before his code switch, said Vunivalu’s diligence matched his physical gifts.
“With Suli it doesn’t surprise me (how quickly he’s adjusted), because he does his homework,” Hegarty said.
“It’s the little things in the game that are the hardest; positioning, all the different rules.
“But if you’re prepared you’re going to do well – and he works hard.”
Hegarty said the Reds had plenty to prove after heavy back-to-back losses against the Highlanders and Crusaders followed their emotional Super Rugby AU defeat of the Brumbies.
“After investing so much into that (an 8-1 Super AU campaign) it’s been a big test and some of it hasn’t been up to scratch,” he said.
“We’re leaving ourselves a bit short.
“The game is faster – everyone can see that – which is really good, but we’ve let them take the lead on that rather than adapt.”