Lesley Vainikolo - Yorkshire's volcano
PUBLISHED: 09:51 07 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:02 20 February 2013
Chris Titley writes about the former Bradford Bull
THANK goodness for the glorious mispronunciation of Lesley Vainikolo's name by the Australian television commentator Peter Sterling, whose garbled attempt at the Tongan man mountain's surname came out as 'Volcano'. A legend was born, a Krakatoa of a rugby player whose frenzied tryscoring eruptions, up until last summer, lit up the cavernous bowl at Odsal - or the Grattan Stadium as it is officially titled these days - home to the Bradford Bulls.
An honorary Bradfordian after his feats with the Bulls in rugby league, the Volcano is erupting in rugby union for Gloucester and now England following his headline-grabbing selection in Brian Ashton's squad for the Six Nations Championship. It is a long way from his days growing up in Nuku'alofa, the capital of Tonga, which happens to be twinned with Whitby, a little-known fact that a good friend persists in accusing me of having made up.
Lesley's Yorkshire pilgrimage did not happen until he was 22 but what an impact he made during six seasons at Bradford and on the streets of Pudsey, where his outrageous hairstyles, from cornrows and Afros to his braids and beads, stunned onlookers. He left the Bulls as a copper-bottomed Yorkshire hero, although never could the Bradford outfit have imagined that their Tongan Kiwi, with 12 New Zealand rugby league caps to his name, would be playing for England just seven months after switching rugby codes.
As another cross-coder, Leeds-born Jason Robinson, vacated his place on the England wing to run a farm in retirement in came another rugby league great in Vainikolo, six inches taller and six stones heavier than Robinson but with similarly twinkling feet,astonishingly for such a big man. Everything about 'Big Les' is big, including a handshake that leaves you wincing for days, for which I can testify after first meeting him on arrival in Bradford in 2002.
Nevertheless, the Volcano risked extinction during his first season. Not so much pyroclastic flow as no flow. Big Les discovered a fondness for burgers. More than once, he had to beprized from fast food joints. He hated the weather and his defending, well, a supertanker turned quicker. But that great Bradford stalwart Brian Noble worked wonders and Vainikolo returned the following season like a man possessed. Bradford won everything that year.
My lasting image of Vainikolo in rugby league is of his thundering hooves beating up the turf at Headingley for a length of the field try (one of 149 he scored in 152 games for Bradford) against Leeds Rhinos. He rumbled over the tryline a Super League record six times in a hammering of Hull in 2005 and for five tries against Wigan Warriors the season before. Give Big Les a sniff of the whitewash and he was over, notwithstanding the number of tacklers opponents posted to try and stop him.
I was there for his introductory game of rugby union on familiar territory at Headingley in September. The complexities and intricacies of a new game were rumbustiously overcome by his volcanic eruptions and five tries in Gloucester colours against a shattered Leeds Carnegie. Little wonder that Ashton, the England union coach, came knocking, with Vainikolo, despite not yet holding a British passport, free to play for England on the basis of residency qualification under International Rugby Board rules.
An excited Vainikolo informed his old Bradford team-mates at a function that he'd had a call from 'the big boss man, someone called Andrew.' This turned out to be England elite rugby director Rob Andrew, another Yorkshireman who knows a winner when he sees one.