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RUGBY UNION

Man-mountain, Lesley Vainikolo, nicknamed "The Volcano", has been included into the England squad for the first time. The giant Tongan, who once played Rugby League for New Zealand and Bradford Bulls, has switched over to the other code of rugby - Rugby Union - and now plays for Guinness Premiership leaders Gloucester. He qualifies for England as he has lived here for over 3 years.

England, who reached the 2007 World Cup Final against South Africa, will face Wales in their opening game in this year's Six Nations Championship.

Other debutants in the England squad include Cipriani and Wigglesworth.

Wales will feel the heat as Ashton pins England's hopes on Volcano

By PETER JACKSON
9th January 2008
Daily Mail

England gave Wales ample notice yesterday that a volcanic eruption awaits them at Twickenham next month in the shape of a dreadlocked titan from the South Sea Islands.
Lesley Vainikolo will bring a whole new dimension to the Six Nations.

He is a wing of Jonah Lomu-like proportions, whose rugby journey from Nuku'alofa in his native Tonga will now take him to HQ via such improbable Red Rose nurseries as the Canberra Raiders, the Bradford Bulls and the New Zealand rugby league team.


Striding away: The "Volcano" - Lesley Vainikolo - scores a try for Guinness Premiership table-toppers Gloucester. This man-mountain may make his debut for England against Wales in the Six Nations Championship on 2nd February. He once played rugby league for Bradford Bulls before switching over to the other type of rugby - rugby union - and signed for Gloucester



Brian Ashton plans to unleash the Polynesian at the outset of the tournament, convinced of his readiness after a whirlwind apprenticeship of nine tries in nine matches for Gloucester.

The coach is scornful of any suggestion that the 'Volcano' lacks the kicking game which even as distinguished a predecessor from League as Jason Robinson had to acquire.

Ashton said: "Why would you want a 6ft 2in wing weighing 18st to kick the ball away?

"I first saw him in rugby league five years ago and he had the wow, X-Factor then. He's powerful, very explosive and a good footballer with quick footwork. He isn't just a powerhouse runner but an intelligent player.

"His transition to union has been fairly straightforward, he's not been caught out defensively any time I've watched him and he's a threat all over the field. And he has also run 100metres in 10.8 seconds."

On the day Josh Lewsey and Andy Farrell headed the short casualty list from the World Cup, Vainikolo loomed large above everyone else.

As head coach, Ashton has been sold on Vainikolo since the 28-yearold first declared his England ambitions shortly after scoring five on his Premiership debut at Leeds last September — but even the man himself will have been surprised at the breakneck speed of events.

"My international hopes are firmly for the future," said Vainikolo after his first match for Gloucester. "I want to let my rugby do the talking for me and see what happens."

Since then his game, interrupted by a neck injury and a second return to Auckland on emergency family business last week, has not so much talked as shrieked his name from the rooftops.

After watching him score the most recent of his tries, in Gloucester's runaway European Cup home win over Bourgoin before Christmas, Ashton popped the question: "How about playing for England?"

Vainikolo told him: "I would be very, very excited at the possibility of doing that."

The RFU then set about ensuring that their new capture complied with international qualification regulations — which are no longer as useless as they were during the 'Grannygate' farce which exposed Welsh Kiwis Shane Howarth and Brett Sinkinson as ineligible.

After seven years at Bradford, Vainikolo had more than doubled the minimum three-year residential right to swop the Silver Fern for a Red Rose.

The only other issue was to eliminate any question that he had played at international level in Tonga before switching to league.

"We are waiting to receive one form from the Tongan Rugby Union," said Rob Andrew, the RFU's director of elite rugby.

"Lesley has signed a declaration that he hasn't played any representative rugby for Tonga."

Once he had fallen into their laps, the RFU were not about to ignore him for fear of offending traditionalists reared on the reasonable assumption that only Englishmen should play for England.

"We don't set the regulations," said Andrew.

FOREIGN ATHLETES WHO HAVE, OR MAY, REPRESENT ENGLAND OR GREAT BRITAIN IN SPORT






"This guy is playing in England, he is eligible for England and he wants to play for England.

We have to make sure we have the very best players who are eligible to play for us."

Paul Sackey and David Strettle have earned their stripes as the first-choice wings, so Vainikolo will almost certainly make his entry from among the substitutes, just as Robinson did in the same tournament seven years ago.

The planned starting XV will feature at least six changes from the World Cup Final: Mathew Tait or Iain Balshaw for Robinson at full back, Mike Tindall for Danny Hipkiss at outside centre, Toby Flood for Mike Catt at inside centre, Strettle for Mark Cueto on the left wing and James Haskell for Martin Corry in the back row.

Hipkiss, the only member of the 22 on Final duty to be dropped, will wonder what he did to deserve such a fate. The other four — Robinson, Catt, Corry and Lawrence Dallaglio — have retired.

As predicted, Ashton ignored the clamour for Mike Tindall to be given the captaincy and re-appointed Phil Vickery despite the threat to his position at tighthead from Matt Stevens.

Ashton said: "The captain was always going to be Phil Vickery — provided he was going to accept it.

"He did a very good job in a difficult year for English rugby but he knows he's got Matt Stevens behind him. We're fortunate to have two players of such calibre."

Rejuvenation may be England's long-term objective but it is a dirty word as far as Mark Regan is concerned.

He will resume where he let off in Paris last October, still with no end to his career in sight despite reaching the ripe old age of 36 later this month.

Ashton positively bristled at the notion of putting one of his favourites out to grass and introducing the young generation headed by London Irish's David Paice.

"Ronnie a very good scrummager and a terrific member of the England team," said Ashton.

"I had no hesitation whatsoever in picking him. He's worth his weight in gold."

Vainikolo will not be the only uncapped player to make the final 22. Danny Cipriani will be the fly half/goalkicking cover for Jonny Wilkinson and Sale scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth is vying with Peter Richards for the second scrum half position.

The one bolter in the squad is Leicester's back row gazelle Tom Croft, at 22 shooting straight into the vacancy left by Corry's retirement on the strength of a mere dozen Premiership starts.

England 32-man squad for RBS 6 Nations Championship

Backs: I Balshaw (Gloucester), D Cipriani (Wasps), M Cueto (Sale Sharks), T Flood (Newcastle), A Gomarsall (Harlequins), C Hodgson (Sale Sharks), J Noon (Newcastle), P Richards (London Irish), P Sackey (Wasps), D Strettle (Harlequins), M Tait (Newcastle), M Tindall (Gloucester), R Wigglesworth (Sale Sharks), J Wilkinson (Newcastle), L Vainikolo (Gloucester).

Forwards: S Borthwick (Bath), T Croft (Leicester), G Chuter (Leicester), L Deacon (Leicester), N Easter (Harlequins), J Haskell (Wasps), B Kay (Leicester), L Mears (Bath), L Moody (Leicester), T Payne (Wasps), T Rees (Wasps), M Regan (Bristol), S Shaw (Wasps), A Sheridan (Sale Sharks), M Stevens (Bath), P Vickery (Wasps, capt), J Worsley (Wasps).

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