Rival codes battle for ex-Crusaders star

LEAGUE and union are locked in a head-to-head battle for the signature of former Super Rugby star Marika Vunibaka.

The 17-time Fijian international has moved to Griffith and is set to play this year with either the Blacks in Southern Inland Rugby Union or the Black and Whites in Group 20.

The Blacks appear to have the inside running as Vunibaka shares a close friendship with coach Seru Rogo, who confirmed the 39-year-old is will play in this weekend’s Super 10s tournament in Albury.

But the Black and Whites have made a strong run for his services and could yet convince the veteran to join the near-revolution that has occurred over the off-season for the Group 20 wooden spooners.

Rogo told The Area News he had unsurprisingly been in Vunibaka’s ear over choosing union instead of league, but said whoever wins his services will have a gem of a player.

“I think he loves his union,” he said.

“I see him every day and tell him ‘you do whatever you want to mate, whatever makes you happy’. 

"If he wants to play for us, he can. He's a world-renown player, he's been all over the world but he still enjoys having a run every Saturday playing union.

"I'm pretty sure wherever he goes this year, whether it's us or the Black and Whites, he'll do really well on and off the field."

Both sides would dearly love to have a well-travelled player of his pedigree and experience on their books.

Vunibaka represented Fiji at two Rugby World Cups - including the 2003 edition, held in Australia - but spent more than a decade in rugby sevens at international level prior to switching to the full 15-man code.

He was the top tryscorer at the 1997 Rugby World Cup Sevens before spending five years with the Crusaders in the then-Super 12s competition, where the 1.87m, 98kg winger quickly gained a fearsome reputation for his blistering speed.

In his first year at the Crusaders, he was voted Player of the Year at the Fiji Rugby Awards. He finished with a record of 35 tries in 50 matches at the club before heading to Japanese rugby.

Vunibaka made a return to the international scene in 2008 when he captained the Fiji sevens team at IRB Sevens World Series events in Hong Kong, Adelaide, London and Edinburgh.

And despite his advancing years, Rogo believes he still has that special something.

"He's turning 40 this year but watching him at training, you can just tell he's trained with the top players," he said.

"The little things he does, he does really well. The boys are really happy to have him there. 

"They look up to him - most of the Islander boys grew up watching him."

But Vunibaka won't be the only player Rogo is keen to run his eye over this weekend in Albury.

Vaea Mateo - who spent last year with the Waratah Tigers - has returned to the club and has already impressed Rogo with his fitness work, while second-graders Julius Vea, Andres de Meyer and Mitch Clark all look capable of making the step up this season, the coach said.

"We want to make this season a good one," Rogo said.

"I've been telling them we want to enjoy our beers after the games on Saturday.

"The last couple of years they've been having them with a loss and I don't think it tastes good that way.

"There's been a really good turnout with most of the boys from last year and heaps of new faces as well. They're all good players, good trainers.

"We're trying to work out where the boys are playing and I'm pretty sure we'll get it right before we finalise the squad for Albury."

The Blacks are hopeful of fielding two teams in the Albury 10s tournament, which serves as a curtain-raiser for the Melbourne Rebels v NSW Waratahs trial match tomorrow night.

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