SHEILA JOHNSON discovers that despite being a fearsome opponent on the rugby pitch, England international Lesley Vainikolo’s Christian faith is central to his career
“I’m just an an ordinary guy and rugby is my job. That’s the way it should be,” says Gloucester and England player Lesley Vainikolo. Lesley may be over six feet and weigh nearly 18 stone but for all that, the Tongan-born colossus is a meek and easy-going character.
Born into a Christian family in Tonga, moving to New Zealand when he was just five, Lesley freely admits to being “a bad boy” when he was young. His mother caught him stealing from her purse as a teenager and told him off, and Lesley says: “That’s when I realised God was there and I broke down in tears and said sorry to my Mum. We said a prayer together and since then I’ve never doubted.”
Lesley also found from quite an early age that he was good at sport, first athletics, qualifying for the 1998 World Junior Athletics Championships and then rugby. He says: “God chose me and gave me that one-in-a-million talent.”
He started playing professional rugby league for the Canberra Raiders in Australia in 1998, where he was coached by his mentor and idol Mal Meninga. In his first season for the club he was voted the Canberra Raiders rookie of the year. It was also in Australia that Vainikolo first acquired the nickname of ‘The Volcano’, partly because he was fast and partly because the Australian commentators found his surname difficult to pronounce.
Vainikolo moved to England in 2002 to join the Bradford Bulls, and the following year was voted best rugby league player in the world. He received his first offer from Gloucester Rugby Club in 2005 which he declined, but accepted a second offer in 2007, making the switch from playing rugby league to rugby union. He was then selected for the England squad, taking part in the Six Nations.
Lesley’s faith is vital to him in the way he plays his game. “My faith is very important to me both in my rugby and in my life. God gave me the talent, but I have to work hard as a winger because the position is quite demanding. I take my Bible everywhere and read a passage from it before every game and then I bless the jersey, myself, the team and the other team as well.”
He isn’t fazed by criticism either. “It just motivates me to do what I do better,” he says. “I never think above what I am, I was brought up that way.”
There’s a lot of pressure on him to maintain the bad language and drinking culture that often surrounds rugby. Lesley says: “Sometimes I go out with the team and have a few beers and go home and they’ll just carry on doing what they want to do.” But like the rest of us, he doesn’t always get it right, “I get frustrated in the game sometimes and then the bad language just comes out, but I always ask God to forgive me. I’ve taken a few bad roads in my life, but the only way to learn from your mistakes is to follow the man above.”
Lesley had a difficult first year in Gloucester, suffering two family tragedies within four weeks of each other – the death of his father after a long battle with asthma and his brother from a sudden fatal heart attack – but has drawn strength from his faith and the birth of his first son, Kava, in March 2008. He is now finding his feet in the Gloucester team and is signed up with them until 2010.
His family is enormously important to him and his wife and son live locally.
“My wife loves it over here,” says Lesley, “but we will go back to New Zealand when I’ve finished here as I’ve got all my family there, and all my wife’s family too. But I’ve got one year at Gloucester now under my belt and I know I’ve got more to give.”
When he finally gives up the game, Lesley would like to spend more time at home playing with his kids and perhaps start up some sort of small business with his wife. But for now he’s concentrating on his rugby.
Lesley says: “If I keep my faith and carry on what I love doing, one day he’ll let me know ‘it’s time to put the boots up’. But it isn’t that time yet.”
Sheila Johnson is a freelance journalist based in Cheltenham
Christian Publishing & Outreach, registered in England & Wales (Charity no 221462).
Company limited by guarantee No 588731. VAT no 860 219 341.
Registered office: CPO, Garcia Estate, Canterbury Road, Worthing BN13 1BW, UK