Suliasi Vunivalu, the Rugby World Cup and the risk/reward in NRL players for 2027

Rugby Australia's [RA] World Cup bid team had barely finished a celebratory pint of Guinness in Dublin before the speculation had begun.

Would the governing body again target NRL players for the 2027 World Cup to be played on home soil, just as it had done with Wendell Sailor, Mat Rogers and finally Lote Tuqiri almost 20 years ago? It's worth remembering Eddie Jones even made a play for the 8th Immortal Andrew Johns.

So as the sun rose across Australia last Friday and RA began a procession of media spots across the country celebrating the news, inevitably the questions came.

And there was Tuqiri, on hand in Hobart, encouraging Tasmanians to apply for tickets when they eventually go on sale, remembering his own code switch from 2003.

"I switched codes at the time and the big lure for me was having a home World Cup," Tuqiri told reporters. "Having this announcement last night and having another World Cup in Australia will be massive."

By the end of the day a list of NRL stars was already doing the rounds, with names like Tom Trbojevic, James Tedesco and Sam Walker thrown up as potential Rugby Australia targets.

But for any NRL player considering the switch, or RA recruitment manager doing their job, Saturday night's Super Rugby Pacific game between the Blues and Reds was the perfect example of the risk/reward scenario that can play out.

At long last, Suliasi Vunivalu is getting a consistent run without injury. For the first time since his switch at the start of 2021, Vunivalu is enjoying a run of games on the right wing for the Reds, playing three of their last four. After an 18 months riddled with hamstring issues, it is fantastic to see the former Melbourne Storm flyer running freely.

But it was clear from the outset at Eden Park that the Blues had done their homework on Vunivalu. In fact, it took just 48 seconds for him to be partially held up in a tackle by opposing winger Caleb Clarke. Fortunately for Vunivalu, he was able to scratch an offload away before the Blues swarmed in to wrap him up completely.

It happened twice more before the clock had hit six minutes, the final time seeing Vunivalu concede a turnover from which the Blues surged up field to score the first points of the match.

Given the way NRL players are taught to wrestle in the tackle, and keep their feet to force a quick play-the-ball, it is hardly a surprise to see Vunivalu held up in such fashion, on multiple occasions, particularly when he has missed so much rugby through injury since his switch.

That was the risk, now for the reward.

After the Blues had taken an early stranglehold on the match, as much because of a dreadful Reds lineout as anything else, Vunivalu showed exactly why he was such a success in rugby league and why expectations have been high since his switch to the 15-player game.

With the Reds down 17-0, Vunivalu stepped up for a tough carry back on the inside of James O'Connor after Queensland at last found some success at the lineout. Moments later, Vunivalu ran a similar line off Tate McDermott, broke one tackle, absorbed another, and was able to reach out and slam the ball down for the visitors' first try of the match.

Later in the half, the Reds winger stepped inside Caleb Clarke, brushed off Akira Ioane on the inside and tore off down by the right touchline, where he was eventually tackled by Stephen Perofeta. Still, Vunivalu showed his growing rugby aptitude by popping the ball up for Josh Flook, who pinched an extra couple of metres and kept the Reds' momentum going.

Vunivalu's break eventually directly led to a try for Ryan Smith just five phases later, with Vunivalu sniffing about at each ruck in search of another opportunity.

After a largely unimpressive beginning, Vunivalu's involvements had 35 minutes later ensured the Reds went into halftime with a chance of winning the match. While that evaporated within five minutes of the resumption after two quick Blues tries, it was impossible to ignore Vunivalu's efforts in at least keeping the Reds within reach at halftime.

But his entire first 40 minutes should be both a warning and motivator to any league player poised to consider a switch ahead of the 2027 Rugby World Cup - the key takeaway being that they will need time to either re-associate themselves with the nuances of rugby or potentially pick them up from scratch completely.

With a growing list of Australian winger contenders at Test level, Vunivalu is racing the clock and battling a troublesome hamstring to win a spot in the Wallabies' squad for the global showpiece in France, let along the three-Test series with England in June. He has also drawn interest from NRL expansion franchise, the Dolphins, despite indicating he is motivated by the opportunity to play at a Rugby World Cup.

Meanwhile the debate will rage on as to whether RA should be targeting outside backs from rugby league when it is at this point stretched thin financially to re-sign players in the key positions that really matter in Test rugby: fly-half and tighthead prop.

Would the sugar rush off another NRL raid and the hype it would be generate in domestic media circles be enough to wash over a Wallabies scrum that was smashed in the knockout stage because Taniela Tupou wasn't wearing the No. 3 jersey?

It may have been the case in 2003, but it's hard to see such a situation flying some 24 years on.

Whatever the case, it was former Wallabies captain George Gregan who best answered the question of whether Rugby Australia should raid the NRL ranks for 2027.

"It's a good question, it definitely was a big driver for those players," Gregan told reporters in Sydney. "And you're talking about world-class players that came over and made that transition [in 2003], they just didn't do it willy-nilly, they had to work hard to get into the team and earn their place.

"But a Rugby World Cup, if you think about big sporting events, you've got the Summer and Winter Olympics, you've obviously got the football World Cup and we're going to see that this year in Qatar, but the Rugby World Cup is right up there and it inspires and motivates, because you want to be on the big stage and you want to be playing in a really meaningful world competition. And a Rugby World Cup is rugby's Olympics.

"I'm sure it will motivate some [NRL] players, particularly for some of them who do have a background in our game. But they're still going to have to earn it, because I tell you what the players who are still playing in this country, we've always had a really good talent pool, they'll be putting this on their calendar to work towards."