A FORMER Toulouse Olympique front rower is expected to make his debut for the Sydney Roosters on Saturday, becoming the fifth player to graduate from the FFR XIII Elite 1 competition into the NRL.
Fijian international Eloni Vunakece won the French Federation of Rugby League’s Elite 1 Championship and Lord Derby Cup double for Toulouse in 2013-14 before returning to Australia with his family and continuing his dream of playing in the NRL.
The Sydney-raised afro-haired enforcer has the opportunity to realise that dream when the Roosters take on the Manly Sea Eagles at Allianz Stadium, Sydney on Saturday evening (5.30pm AEDST) in their Round 4 encounter.
Vunakece, 28, joins former Toulouse Olympique teammate Nathan Ross (Newcastle Knights); Gold Coast Titans backrower Tom Kingston (Pia Donkeys); and ex-Lezignan Sangliers pair David Fifita (Cronulla Sharks) and Leivaha Pulu (Gold Coast Titans) as players who have spent time in the FFR XIII Elite 1 competition before making their debuts in the NRL.
Like many players plying their trade in the lower grades in Australia and New Zealand, Vunakece headed to the south of France in 2011 after failing to receive a shot in the top grade with Wests Tigers.
He spent three seasons at Toulouse before linking Roosters feeder club, Wyong Roos in the New South Wales Cup competition on a permanent basis in 2014.
Last season the father of two played a starring role as the Roos surged towards their first grand final appearance.
The Newcastle Knights proved too strong on the big day, however Vunakece’s performances throughout the season caught the eye of Roosters coach, and former Toulouse Olympique player/coach, Trent Robinson who invited him to spend the preseason at the Roosters.
He impressed early on and donned a Roosters jersey for the first time in the NRL Auckland Nines.
For the past two weeks Vunakece has been named 18th man for the Roosters, but the combination of injuries to Ian Hendersen (leg) and Dale Copley (pectoral); and the club’s 40-0 loss to North Queensland last weekend saw him break into the 17 for the first time.
Kick-off is at 9.30am (CET) on Saturday.