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SULIASI Vunivalu can still recall the tears welling up in his eyes.
He was 16 and had just stepped onto the aircraft that would take him from his home in Fiji to Auckland and a new life away from everything and everyone he knew.
After some thought, the talented youngster had accepted a rugby union scholarship offer from boarding school St Kentigern College.
He was still a shy teenager, but Vunivalu already possessed the maturity and self confidence to know his moment to step up had arrived.
“I have five siblings and I needed to take the weight off my parents, so I went and followed my dream,” he said.
“It was a hard decision but my parents always back me with what decisions I make.
“Back then we were going through pretty hard time and someone had to step up and do something.
“Leaving was pretty hard and especially with siblings, so I got on the plane and cried the whole way until I fell asleep.”
It was the best thing he ever did.
Fast forward to now and Melbourne Storm’s new Fijian flyer has emerged as one of the success stories of the season.
The 20-year-old made his NRL debut in Round 7, but already he the NRL’s leading tryscorer with 13 tries in just eight games.
“It was never my goal to just score tries; my goal was to play NRL,” Vunivalu said.
“So when that happens it is a bonus and not just for myself but for the club and the boys that put in so much effort and I’m grateful.”
It is a meteoric rise for a player who had played just 30 games of rugby league in his life before making his NRL debut.
Marika Koroibete, Storm’s other Fijian winger, has been a mentor to Vunivalu and he said his protégé’s potential was huge.
“He has a lot of X factor and the scary thing he is he’s still learning,” Koroibete said.
“(Craig) Bellamy will bring all the talent out of him, so If he keeps learning and working hard he’ll get there.”
In a different world, Vunivalu would be playing rugby union right now.
He was on the path towards a Super Rugby career with the Auckland Blues when Storm pounced.
The club’s recruitment staff spotted him on the wing playing for his Auckland school and were immediately struck by his skillset.
“I wanted to play rugby union professionally and my goal was to make it anywhere in New Zealand,” Vunivalu said.
“Playing for Auckland Blues was the dream and it is for a lot of kids back home, and I didn’t know I would soon be playing rugby league.
“I’d always been a massive fan of Billy Slater and the Storm and the first game I ever watched was Storm and Parramatta in a preliminary final I think (in 2007).
“I always followed them so when I got the offer I was pretty stoked, so I told my agent I definitely wanted to take that.”
Once again, Vunivalu was thrust into the unknown.
Another new city and this time a sport he had never played before.
“I didn’t really know anything about how to play league,” he laughed.
“My first under-20s coach just told me to catch the ball and to not run outside as this is not union.”
In 2014 he played eight under-20s games and then progressed to the Queensland Cup, where he played 15 games last season.
But the youngster was becoming restless toiling away in reserve grade.
“I remember going back to Fiji and my dad said ‘What’s going on?’” he said.
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“I didn’t know because I thought I was doing my best, but it still hadn’t clicked yet.
“Sometimes you can get close to the team but not quite there.”
By Bellamy’s own admission, the raw Vunivalu was unlikely to play first-grade this season until an outside backs shortage helped open the door.
He debuted in Round 7 against Wests Tigers at Leichardt Oval with his parents in attendance.
Koroibete presented him with his Storm jersey before the game.
It was a moment he’ll never forget.
“This club and the way Craig Bellamy has built it, it is hard to get in to this side, so when you get your opportunity you have to take it,” Vunivalu said.
Now Vunivalu is in and there is a very simple reason why he never wants to back to the reserves.
And, like everything he has ever done, it is all about his family.
“My parents can’t watch me play Queensland Cup (on television) in Fiji, so I want to play for Storm every week so they can watch me live,” he said.
“When you’re walking forward you never want to walk back, so I want to keep this jersey.
“I never dreamt of playing at this level, but I’m happy with how it’s going.”