‘Big, line-bending, bruising ball carrier’: What if Suliasi Vunivalu was actually supposed to be an inside centre?


Let me first start by saying that this is neither a defence of, nor promotion of, Suliasi Vunivalu as a player…so much has already been said. Rather, this is more of a thought piece around an alternative position for Suli and requires an open mind when reading.

My original idea behind this article was to consider whether we as fans, or coaches of the rugby union teams that have coached him, have pigeon-holed Vunivalu into being only a winger, and never challenged the notion of placing him in another position in the backline. When a player has primarily played wing in high school, then moved to rugby league with the Melbourne Storm as a winger, before being signed to the Reds as, you guessed it, a winger, it’s easy to simply say… he is just a winger!

The thinking is that this guy is generally quite slippery and, in being a big ball carrier, able to break the first and possibly second tackles. I considered his size and pondered whether he would’ve been a decent inside centre who can bend and break the defensive line.

Suliasi Vunivalu. (Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

To consider this radical approach, I thought let’s start by comparing his physical stats versus other inside centres. He stands 1.92m tall and weighs in at 102kg, so bear with me as we consider some of the top inside centres in world rugby, starting with the top two teams in the Southern Hemisphere: South Africa and New Zealand.

In the Springbok set-up, you have Damian de Allende standing 1.89m tall and weighing in at 106kg as well as Andre Esterhuizen standing 1.93m tall and weighing in at a monster 115kg.

In the All Black camp, you have Jordie Barrett standing 1.96m tall and weighing in at 102kg as well as David Havili standing 1.84m tall and weighing in at 95kg.

So Suli is virtually identical to Jordie’s stats.

Jordie Barrett. (Photo by Morgan Hancock/Getty Images)

Now looking to the Wallabies Camp, we have used Samu Kerevi primarily in the inside centre role, mostly as a battering ram. Samu’s stats have him standing 1.86m tall and weighing in at 108kg – so quite comparable when compared to the above players from the Bok and All Black set-ups.

Unfortunately here is where I hit a problem, and it’s a trait that is concerning me about our current crop of in-form Super Rugby inside centres. They are a lot smaller and lighter by comparison. Hunter Paisami (1.72m and 91kg) and Hamish Stewart (1.83m and 90kg) are both shorter and lighter than most of those mentioned above but both offer a genuine alternative second play-maker in the backline. I digress…

To consider using Vunivalu as a big, line-bending, bruising ball carrier requires a simple game plan, almost Springbok like: carry hard, recycle, go again. Unfortunately, this is not one that the Reds are utilising and you would need to be an extraordinarily brave coach to ever experiment with this sort of change so late in a player’s career or at the expense of an in-form centre.

However, perhaps his West’s Club coach can experiment with this in the Hospital Cup; I say this as I am certain that he will not be getting an Eddie Jones-type Wallabies call up when Joe Schmidt selects his squad in the coming weeks.

Vunivalu’s step in the final seconds ????‍????#SuperRugbyPacific pic.twitter.com/NabVFgczX8

— Super Rugby Pacific (@SuperRugby) April 22, 2024

I know that tall, strong and heavy are clearly not the only determinants (nice to haves) that are required for an inside centre. That’s looking at it purely from an attacking standpoint. Inside centres need to be tight in defence, be a hard defender and be the glue between 10 and outside centre… and perhaps that’s exactly why Suli has found his home on the wing.

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Again, this is a thought piece, and as such I only ask that after you read this you close your eyes and wonder “What if?”. What if he had played at inside centre in his formative years to learn the craft? What if?

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