Recently, a second-year winger achieved a remarkable feat, breaking a record that had stood since 1950 and been equalled three times but never broken.

That record was for the most tries scored in a player's first two seasons of first grade which was 38, set by Ron Roberts for St George in 1949-1950.

That player is the Melbourne Storm's Suliasi Vunivalu.

Most Tries in First Two Seasons of First Grade

Suliasi Vunivalu 40 2016-2017* (Melbourne Storm)
Ron Roberts 38 1949-1950 (St George)
Reg Gasnier 38 1959-1960 (St George)
Larry Corowa 38 1978-1979 (Balmain)
Alex Johnston 38 2014-2015 (South Sydney)

And whilst this is an impressive enough feat in and of itself, this writer also hears Vunivalu regularly referred to as the next Israel Folau. High praise indeed.

So who is he? Is he the next Israel Folau? Or is he the next stage in the evolution of the modern winger, a position that has really become more and more important over the past decade.

The Next Israel Folau

Israel Folau may not be on the above list, but he didn't miss by much, scoring an impressive 36 tries in his first two seasons as a seventeen and eighteen-year-old. He drew massive headlines, not just for his age, but also for his size, strength and leaping ability and it is this last part that is the source of the comparisons between the two players.

Suliasi Vunivalu was an older twenty years of age on debut, but with less rugby league experience behind him having been recruited from the other game and progressed speedily through the Storm's lower grades.

And so, both had a meteoric rise to first grade and a massive impact, but the comparison probably ends there.

Folau made a move into the centres in mid-2007 and stayed there for the rest of his career.  He also scored in 29 of his 52 matches for the Storm, tending to get a try here and there as opposed to getting them in big clumps with only five doubles and a hat-trick to his name.

Vunivalu, on the other hand, has scored in 22 of his 40 matches with eleven doubles, two hat-tricks and a club record equalling four try haul versus Manly last year.  He has also stayed on the wing the whole time.

Folau vs Vunivalu

The following table compares Israel Folau's career at the Melbourne Storm to Suliasi Vunivalu's.

Folau Vunivalu
Matches 52 40
Tries 36 40
Doubles 5 11
Hat-Tricks 1 2
Four-Try hauls 0 1

The Next Evolutionary Step of the Modern Winger

Suliasi Vunivalu is listed on the Melbourne Storm website as being 192cm and 99kg although he may well be a touch bigger even.

Sources say he is almost as quick as Josh Addo-Carr.

He is strong.

He rarely, if ever, drops a high ball.

He can leap over the top of opponents.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 10: Suliasi Vunivalu of the Storm runs away to score his teams first try during the NRL Qualifying Final match between the Melbourne Storm and the North Queensland Cowboys at AAMI Park on September 10, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

Opposing teams direct their kicking games away from him towards either Billy Slater or Josh Addo-Carr, such can be the damaging nature of his kick returns.

And he can finish off a try as well as anyone in the league.

The winger in the modern game has to be able to do so many things, defuse bombs, start the team's sets off with strong carries, provide support runs on demand and most importantly, they must be able to finish off a try.

Suliasi Vunivalu can do all of this and more.

The Role of the Modern Winger

For so long, finishing off a backline movement was all that was really asked of wingers.  No longer. Now they are these amazing athletes, the headline acts in our game who can contort themselves into bizarre shapes to keep their bodies aloft whilst floating over the touch line so that their arms can score the tries.

The last few seasons have seen highlight reels that are dominated by these superhuman acts in the pursuit of scoring tries.

TOWNSVILLE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 04: Suliasi Vunivalu of the Storm scores a try during the round 22 NRL match between the North Queensland Cowboys and the Melbourne Storm at 1300SMILES Stadium on August 4, 2017 in Townsville, Australia. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

We see players who are now prepared to dive from five metres out and elevate their bodies so that all that is left in the field of play by the time they ground the ball is the hand holding the ball and a bit of the forearm.

We even see footage of lower grades and schoolboy games where kids are mimicking these feats such as the video of the schoolboy winger who literally flipped over an opponent to score.

The Answer?

There is no simple answer to the question of who Vunivalu is.  But I believe there is one.

Vunivalu might remind us of Folau with his ability to jump, but he is so much more than just the next Israel Folau, he is a part of the evolution of the game.

Whether that makes him the next evolutionary step or simply an extension of one which has already been taken is a matter of opinion.  I don’t know whether it matters though, he is clearly something special and I can only hope he keeps entertaining us for years to come…

I'm sure I'm not the only one who is enjoying the evolution of the modern winger.

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