King Vuniyayawa: New Leeds Rhinos signing on working his way to the top
Super League newcomer Vuniyayawa remembers the long days of working in a manual job and training in the evenings on his way to the top. "I knew there was always a goal to get to and I had to stick it out, and I guess it all paid off in the end," the Fiji international said.
By Marc Bazeley
Last Updated: 16/02/21 3:14pm
King Vuniyayawa has never been afraid of hard work in pursuit of his rugby league dreams.
Before earning a full-time contract with NRL side New Zealand Warriors, the Fiji international was combining working long hours in a manual job along with playing on a part-time basis.
Vuniyayawa was preparing to go back to that after being released by the Warriors at the end of the 2020 season too, until Leeds Rhinos offered him the chance to play in Super League.
The forward subsequently seized the opportunity to sign a one-year deal with the Rhinos and he is pleased to see those years of grafting his way to the top are yielding rewards.
"I came up doing that before I got signed full time and I really wouldn't have minded until I could get myself back up again," Vuniyayawa said.
"I was building switchboards and stuff back home. It was hard at first going to work then going to training at the end of the night, finishing around 9pm or 10pm and getting back home to get back up early to go to work.
"But I knew there was always a goal to get to and I had to stick it out, and I guess it all paid off in the end."
I had my first taste of league and I was like 'I'm not going back to union at all!'
Born on the rugby-mad Pacific island of Fiji, Vuniyayawa grew up idolising the All Blacks and got his start in the sport playing rugby union, mainly as a flanker or No 8, when he moved to New Zealand as a child with his family.
Watching the Warriors and then seeing Jarryd Hayne star for Fiji at the 2008 Rugby League World Cup opened his eyes to the 13-man code, although initially he resisted the calls of his school friends to play it.
But when he did finally decide to try his hand at league, Vuniyayawa never looked back and as someone who enjoyed the battle of the breakdown in union it should come as no surprise he particularly relished the physical contests in the sport.
"I had my first taste of league and I was like 'I'm not going back to union at all!'," Vuniyayawa said.
"After the '08 World Cup, I saw Jarryd Hayne playing and he attracted my eyes to the game. After that, it was all of the shoulder contact and everything.
"I was only 15 and my mate was playing in the A-team's grade, and he told me to go play some league. I was just throwing shoulders everywhere and I kind of fell in love with that.
"The other team was getting mad at me, but after that I was like 'Wow, this is a fun game!'. The shoulder charge is banned now, but I guess it's all for the good of the game."
The 25-year-old has long been on the radar of Leeds head coach Richard Agar, who first became aware of Vuniyayawa during his time working in St George Illawarra Dragons' recruitment department.
In King, we've got a guy who has got some massive sting in his defence and can whack people, and he's got that leg speed, athleticism and ball carrying we think will complement our existing front-rowers well.
Agar has kept track of the prop's progress since returning to the UK and was quick to make a move when the opportunity came up to sign him, seeing Vuniyayawa as someone who will help the Rhinos on both the attacking and defensive sides.
"I'll quite happily say the attributes I feel King has got, from following him through reserve grade to first grade last year, he gives us a different complement to what we've got now," Agar said.
"In King, we've got a guy who has got some massive sting in his defence and can whack people, and he's got that leg speed, athleticism and ball carrying we think will complement our existing front-rowers well."
Vuniyayawa is looking forward to taking on some familiar faces in Super League, not least of all the Hull FC's Ligi Sao as the pair both grew up in the Auckland suburb of Manurewa and played for the same junior club, the renowned Manurewa Marlins.
He joins fellow Fiji internationals Kevin Naiqama (St Helens) and Korbin Sims (Hull KR) in plying his trade in the competition this season, with an eye on being part of the team's Rugby League World Cup squad later in the year too.
And while rugby union, in particular rugby sevens, dominate in the country, Vuniyayawa is seeing a growth in interest and the profile of league in his homeland.
"Sevens and union have so much more influence with the younger guys and the new generation growing up," Vuniyayawa said. "League is not far from there, but I know a lot people back home really support us.
"I didn't know anything about rugby league until I came over to New Zealand and watched the Warriors and was like 'What's this game?' and started watching them.
"Back at home, everyone is starting to understand rugby league is one of the pathways kids can go through now and a lot of the players are setting the way in the NRL and over here now. I think the profile of it is really growing."