Vainikolo thriving in professional ranks

Photosport     27 Mar 2008     Photosport

Fetu'u translates to star in Tongan and he has been the outstanding back of the Highlanders, without doubt, in the first half of the Rebel Sport Super 14.

That was emphasised last weekend as he scored a dazzling individual try from 60 metres out against the Western Force in Queenstown where he displayed his speed, strength and swerve.

"When you get the ball you've just got to make the most of it because there are games when you hardly get the ball," Vainikolo said.

Now Vainikolo and the Highlanders are preparing to travel to Hamilton for Saturday night's game against the Chiefs as they seek their first win of the season.

"We just want to get a win to turn our season around," Vainikolo said. "Every game is a big game for me and they will be tough.

"There is a lot of firepower in the Chiefs' back three. I played against them (Waikato) for Northland in the national championship last year and for the Highlanders in the pre-season game this year. They're strong and fast. I've just got to keep up with them."

On the evidence of this season, that should not be too much of a problem as Vainikolo, 23, has proved one of the most dynamic rookies of the competition.

He played 10 games for Northland last year and Highlanders coach Glenn Moore saw enough to move quickly and draft him to Dunedin.

"It's quite a step up from the NPC and I just need to work on my game and fix the little mistakes," Vainikolo said. "You can never be happy with where your game is at.

"I'm just loving the Super 14. I just have to try to improve with every game. I just want to get more experience so that I'll be a better player next season."

Which he is already, according to coach Moore.

"Fetu'u is a bit of an excitement machine. He has great natural talent and he's keen to learn."

Vainikolo, who is no relation to England rugby international Lesley Vainikolo but who is a cousin of Waratahs utility Daniel Halangahu, is keen to make the most of his considerable potential.

"I'll take whatever comes to me but an All Black jersey one day would be the pinnacle," he said, adding that he had a lot of work and improvement ahead before he could contemplate such status.

"I love watching players like Joe Rokocoko and Mils Muliaina and I admire what they have achieved."

Vanikolo came to Auckland from Tonga with his family at the age of 12 and attended Marcellin College.

He played at under-15 level as a prop, then as a loose forward before he made his way into the backs.

"I got lazy one game, I was hanging around out on the wing, I did something good with the ball so I ended up out on the wing.

"I think my speed and strength are my main attributes but a lot of what I do is still instinctive."

Vainikolo played for the Auckland age-group teams, and the Marist premiers, but last year played for the Wellsford club in Northland where he came under the influence of astute coach Adrian Ferris.

He has made a seamless transition from Northland to the Highlanders and, in a team which has had trouble scoring tries, he has been a constant danger.

Vainikolo is conspicuous in his orange boots.

"I just thought I'd try something new but it's not the boots, it's who's wearing them that matters," he said.

You bet and, right now, Vainikolo is making a strong claim to be yet another of the Island-born wingers who make their mark on New Zealand rugby.