Known as ‘The Volcano’, Lesley Vainikolo was one of the iconic players of Super League’s first decade.
Born in Nuku’alofa, Tonga – which is twinned with Whitby, in North Yorkshire – in May, 1979, Vainikolo grew up in Auckland and began his professional career with Canberra Raiders in Australia’s National Rugby League.
He acquired his nickname from former Australian Test half-back Paul Sterling, who – in his role as a television commentator – found it easier to pronounce than his actual surname.
After earning his first Test cap for New Zealand in the 1999 Tri-Nations tournament, Vainikolo was spotted by the management at Bradford, who were then one of the powerhouses of the British game.
Vainikolo fitted Bulls’ method of operation perfectly. Big – standing 6ft 2in tall and weighing in at almost 18st – he had the physical attributes to play in the front-row, but also boasted a winger’s speed and finishing power.
He joined Bradford ahead of the 2002 campaign and went on to become a club legend during a five-year spell at Odsal.
Vainikolo took a while to adapt to English conditions, scoring only 11 tries in 22 appearances in his debut campaign, but once he hit his stride he proved all-but unstoppable.
By the end of his time at Bradford, in 2007, Vainikolo had touched down 136 times in as many Super League appearances.
His best campaign was in 2004 when he was named ‘Man of Steel’, rugby league’s top individual accolade.
He crossed 39 times in 28 games that year and his 38 Super League tries set a record which stood until last season, when it was beaten by Castleford Tigers’ Denny Solomona.
In 2005 Bradford became the first club from outside the top-two to win a Super League Grand Final and Vainikolo touched down in the 15-6 victory over defending champions Leeds Rhinos at Old Trafford. That was the last of his 34 tries in 23 appearances that term and by then he had another Super League record to his name.
On September 2, Bradford squared up to Hull in front of a 13,326 crowd at Odsal. It was the visitors’ first game since they had stunned Leeds 25-24 in the first August Challenge Cup final, staged at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium.
A week-long celebration had clearly taken its toll and Hull were thrashed 49-6. Vainikolo was the destroyer in chief, running in a double hat-trick.
He was the first – and so far only – player to score six tries in a Super League game, though five tries has been achieved 15 times.
Shontayne Hape, Stuart Fielden, Joe Vagana and Jamie Peacock also crossed and Paul Deacon added four goals and a one-pointer. Hull’s response was Gareth Raynor’s touchdown and Danny Brough’s goal.
The win at the start of September was Bulls’ sixth successive victory – a hot streak which was doubled by the time they lifted the Super League trophy.
Vainikolo eventually switched codes to join Gloucester Rugby Union Club and went on to play five Tests for England in 2008, having qualified under residency rules.