This interview with Lesley Vainikolo was carried out for League Express shortly before he switched codes in 2007.
How did you get into Rugby League?
When I was 11, one of my best friend’s teams was short of numbers so I went along for a game. That was the first time I’d ever played the game and I’ve never looked back! That was in the Under-12s in Auckland where I was from, and the club was Papatoetoe Panthers. I played for them for a year.
Were you a stand out player back then?
I was good at rugby [union] and athletics. I was big and strong but I’d never even heard of League but when I played it I liked it. It took me a year to learn the game and at the age of 12, my coach saw a lot of potential in me. I represented Auckland, went into a New Zealand camp and managed to play for Tonga in the 1997 World Nines as a 16-year-old who was still at school. That was in Townsville and we won the Bowl tournament beating Papua New Guinea in the final 16-8, having also played New Zealand, Great Britain, South Africa, France and Japan. We had a good team and it was a great experience for me.
How did you end up at Canberra Raiders?
I went there at the start of 1997 but I’d been at Auckland Warriors beforehand. I didn’t like the Warriors treated the kids though. The money they paid them was so poor that I didn’t go back. It wasn’t just for myself, I did it for the other kids as well who were getting peanuts and I told the club that they had to treat the young kids better. So when Canberra came in for me after that Nines tournament, I was delighted to go there and to be coached by my hero Mal Meninga. But my parents wanted me to finish school so I didn’t make my debut until 1998.
What are your big memories of the Raiders?
There were some great players there like Ricky Stuart, Laurie Daley, Bradley Clyde, Brett Mullins and Ruben Wiki. I loved playing with those guys having seen them on TV so often just a few years earlier. Ruben was like a big brother to me, guiding me through the good and bad times. Ruben and his family looked after me. Being a mummy’s boy back home, I had to stand on my own two feet and experience what life was all about. I got the chance to do that at Canberra and, of course, later on by going to England. In the end, I tore my pec and was released. I told them I needed a change and Mal and Ruben told me I had to look after myself.
You came to the attention of English fans during the 2000 World Cup in what was a great tournament for you.
I remember that I scored a hat-trick against Wales at Millennium Stadium and I loved the competition. The final was a great experience for me and we pushed Australia close for a lot of that game but they were too good for us late on. Back then, the Kiwis had a great team spirit going on with the senior players keeping the kids on the ground and everything we did, we did it together. We’d have a few beers during the week and we were brought up in the squad to respect out elders. That’s what we do in New Zealand and it made a big difference to the squad. Respect was the big word.
How did you end up at Bradford?
It was through my manager. I’d been talking to Robbie Paul and then Joe Vagana joined the Bulls and they told me it was a real family club. There was a big Kiwi connection at Odsal as well. A few English clubs came in for me but I felt that Bradford was the place to be.
Why did it take you a while to settle in?
I was recovering from my injury still and then there was the move to England to deal with and everything that went with that. It can take you a while to settle in to a new country. I struggled in 2002 but decided to put my head down and get things right in the last year of that contract. Fortunately for me, that’s what happened!
Your first success was the 2003 Challenge Cup win over Leeds. That was a great game wasn’t it?
Yes, that is one of my favourite Bulls memories. Leeds played very well but we just tried to close down their key players and we got the win. The atmosphere was amazing that day. In fact, I was shocked by it. The roof being closed probably made it that loud but it was great to be a part of it. Some of our games against Leeds that year were so close but we managed to hold them off each time. We had a dream team in 2003 with fantastic coaching staff like Brian Noble, Karl Harrison and Darryl Shelford. The staff were great and 2003 was an exceptional year for all of us as we won the Super League as well by beating Wigan at Old Trafford.
You must have been happy when you heard that Leeds had dropped Danny McGuire for that Cup Final.
Yes but at the time we didn’t really care who was in front of us. We were just primed and ready to go.
What other memories stand out for you?
There are so many. As well as 2003 there was 2004 when I broke the tryscoring record when Danny McGuire and I were competing for the most tries. Then there was 2005 when we were completely written off by everyone but managed to put together that long winning run to get to the Grand Final and beat Leeds. As well as specific memories, it’s just been great to play with so many great players like Shontayne, Deacs, Danny Gartner, Mike Forshaw, Jimmy Lowes, Lee Gilmour, Leon Pryce. We had a good mixture and everyone wanted to play. Then there were guys like Jamie Peacock, Joe Vagana and Stuart Fielden up front. As well as the club and the success we’ve had, it’s been great meeting people away from the footy. I’ve got some great friends here.
You struck up a great left-sided relationship with Shontayne.
Yes, we did. He came over from the Warriors to join Bradford after I did. He’s a great player and we’ve always enjoyed what we do. If it comes off, it comes off and it makes the crowd happy which is good.
Do you have any regrets over your Rugby League career?
No, none at all!
What about your Kiwi career? Do you wish you’d played more games for them?
Yes, I suppose so.
Did it cause any problems when Bradford pulled you out of the 2004 Tri-Nations after you’d scored for the Kiwis against Australia?
No, not really. When you think about it, it’s good to represent your country but it’s only for a short time whereas Bradford is for the whole year and I’ve always wanted to show them loyalty.
When did you start to think that it was time to leave Bradford?
I discussed with my wife and my manager what was best for the future. I thought it that I’d done everything in League and that it was time to move on and face a new challenge. We felt that it was the right time and you’ve got to look after yourself of course. Gloucester initially showed some interest two years ago but I decided that it wasn’t the right time back then but they’ve left the door open for me.
Did you get worried earlier in the season seeing Chris Ashton getting booed?
[laughs] Yes, I did actually! But it depends which club you’re at and what the fans are like there. Against Hull, it was an honour to be sent out like that. Our fans are fantastic and they’ve given me such a buzz in the time that I’ve been here. I was really nervous against Hull and ended up trying too hard and getting frustrated. I tried to ignore it but it’s not that easy.