Suliasi Vunivalu's big chance arrives after Eddie's 'cattle prod'

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The "cattle prod" might just have done its job after all.

Suliasi Vunivalu will make his run-on Test debut in Pretoria this weekend, after he was named on the right wing to face the Springboks in the Wallabies' Rugby Championship opener. The former Melbourne Storm flyer has been at the centre of an ongoing debate between Australian rugby fans, having only shown glimpses of the dynamic play that made him a household name in rugby league.

But Wallabies coach Eddie Jones has long admired rugby league wingers, and on Thursday he gave Vunivalu the opportunity to take the first steps on the same path that took Wendell Sailor and Lote Tuqiri from Brisbane Broncos to rugby's biggest stage.

"I've seen him develop some really good habits in Super Rugby and when he's come in and trained with us for the last two or three weeks, every session he's got a little bit better," Jones said of Vunivalu. "He's an exceptional player, strong in the air, big guy, got good pace. I've got no doubt he's going to do a good job for us on Saturday."

Earlier this year Jones indicated that Vunivalu was right in the frame for the Rugby Championship, after including him among his training squad on the Gold Coast in April despite the Fijian producing some indifferent form for the Reds.

In several of Queensland's early games, Vunivalu seemed to be running at half-pace, either concerned about his troublesome hamstrings or down on fitness as he also shunned the required effort to chase back in defence.

Cue Jones and his "cattle prod" line, a metaphorical jolt of low-volt electricity he hoped would fire the Fijian into top gear. But Jones did actually bring a cattle prod into Sanctuary Cove.

"I actually didn't know about the cattle prod," Vunivalu told the Sydney Morning Herald after the camp wrapped up. "When he mentioned it, I had to ask one of the boys next to me, 'what do they use that for'?

"It's funny. Eddie is a funny coach. He has some jokes in him. It's made me run faster in the last few weeks.

"It was really quiet when he entered. We thought he was going to be really serious, but he was cracking jokes. Everyone enjoyed the camp. I took a lot from it and I know what I need to work on in my game."

Vunivalu has been dogged by hamstring injuries since his code switch, but the two-time NRL Premiership winger at last strung some games together at the backend of Super Rugby Pacific, and started to resemble the same player that caused all kinds of headaches for opposition wingers in rugby league.

Crucially, he also appeared to have a better understanding of rugby's fundamentals, and showed his growing acumen when he scored from close range in Queensland's gutsy quarterfinal loss to the Chiefs, the winger finishing with a double to make it seven tries in 12 Super Rugby games this season.

In his three seasons at Ballymore, Vunivalu has 17 five-pointers in 28 games, an impressive strike rate given the amount of time he has spent on the sidelines.

Vunivalu also offers an invaluable cross-kick option, something fly-half Quade Cooper may look to utilise, particularly with the Wallabies winger lining up against Springboks flyer Kurt-Lee Arendse, who is a full six inches shorter than the Fijian.

Arendse is yet to face the Wallabies, after he was rubbed out for four weeks following a dangerous mid-air collision with Beauden Barrett in the Springboks' Rugby Championship opener last year. But he is a brilliant attacking player, as is fellow winger Canan Moodie, who the Wallabies will recall scored a sensational aerial try of his own last year in Sydney.

Defensively, the Wallabies look short on kicking nous across their back-three, with Marika Koroibete not exactly known for his ability to put boot to ball. And so Tom Wright, who has been given first crack at fullback, may need to shoulder much of the responsibility on that front.

"Glen Ella's over here as a Classic Wallaby, he commented yesterday [Wright] got good pace, good power," Jones said. "He's got a good kicking game. He's a good communicator. And his job is to make sure that he does what we need whether we decide on running or kicking."

By re-signing with Rugby Australia and the Reds for two further years in May, Vunivalu cleared up any doubt over his commitment and desire to be a genuine success story in the 15-player game, something that Roger Tuivasa-Sheck's struggles - and pending switch back to the NRL - prove is anything but a given.

But Vunivalu has left himself precious little time, four Tests at the absolute maximum, to prove he is worthy of World Cup selection. He will take hope from Tuqiri's rapid rise in 2003, though, after his fellow code-hopper went from a Waratahs debut to World Cup final try-scorer in the space of nine months.

Tuqiri, too, had an aerial threat and was a clear favourite of Jones, eventually usurping Joe Roff on the Wallabies left wing by the time Australia met England in the 2003 decider.

Finally free of the hamstring issues that have plagued his code switch, it's up to Vunivalu to take his chance on Saturday in Pretoria -- although one final pregame cattle prod from Jones might not hurt either.