Tongan international Cooper Vuna will be like a new signing for Newcastle Falcons when the new Gallagher Premiership season starts on the weekend of November 20-22 – the outside back scoring on his debut last autumn before suffering a cruel, season-ending injury.
Vuna, the former Bath and Worcester man who has represented both Tonga and Australia at international level, dived in for a spectacular score just two minutes into his opening appearance against Hartpury.
But the 50-10 home victory was to prove bittersweet for the ex-rugby league star, who went under the surgeon’s knife and had to watch on from the sidelines as the Falcons won every single game to secure their spot back in the big time.
Now back in training ahead of the Premiership campaign, Vuna is predicting a positive return for the top-flight’s most northerly rugby outpost.
Q: How do you look back on your first season with the Falcons – a great start scoring on your debut in late November, and then presumably a lot of frustration?
Cooper Vuna: Yeah, that pretty much sums it up. My season for Newcastle was short-lived – about 30 minutes, if I remember rightly – and it’s been a long road since then. It was great to get out there for my debut, I was really enjoying it and managed to get over for a try with one of my first touches, but then all of a sudden it was over.
It wasn’t actually in the act of scoring the try that I did it – it was soon after. I dived on a loose ball and someone basically just jumped straight on top of me, which broke the screw inside my shoulder. It was a full reconstruction, my third operation on that shoulder, which meant they had to put in a bigger screw and use a bone from my hip to replace a few cartilages and that. It was a big op but it all went well, and I’m on the way back now preparing for Prem time.
Q: Your season of course had begun with the Rugby World Cup, playing for Tonga out in Japan. How was that whole experience?
CV: The World Cup is the pinnacle of rugby union, it’s the high point of any player’s career and it was great to be a part of it with Tonga. As soon as our involvement was over, though, my thought process was like ‘now it’s time to switch focus and put in a big shift for the Falcons after the faith they’ve had in me’. As a player at a new club you just want to put your first foot forward and make a positive impression early on, to get your foot in the door. I really enjoyed the brief time I had out on the field and felt like I was making a positive contribution, but obviously I would have wanted it to last a lot longer.
Q: How tough was it watching the boys when you were out injured?
CV: The club were great with me and basically gave me three or four months off to begin with, because I couldn’t really do much. I was more involved in the second half of the season in terms of being around the boys, seeing a bit more of what they were doing and obviously doing my rehab at the club. It was great to see them winning every week and eventually securing that promotion back to the Premiership, and now it’s just a case of adding to that by putting some new things into our game. It was a real building block of a season for us, and I think we used it well.
Q: How’s your own preparation for next season coming along?
CV: We’re getting there, gradually. I’m keeping on building into it, and it’s just getting into that mind-set of understanding that the shoulder is strong and that I can do the contact work. I’m back training with the squad at the moment, which is nice, although with it being relatively early into pre-season we haven’t done much in the way of contact and stuff like that. A lot of it is just getting my mind-set right so that when boys are running lines into me, I can just get into it. It’s a gradual build-up, and in terms of the actual rugby we’re learning new things. We have a new defence coach in Nick Easter, we’re introducing some new stuff to other aspects of our game and I’m basically just like a kid at school, learning every day. By the time it comes to play some games we’ll be ready to go, and it’s an exciting period for us.
Q: How was lockdown for you and your family? Did you stay local, or head home?
CV: We were a week too late in terms of the borders closing in Australia and New Zealand, so we spent lockdown in Newcastle. I think like most people it was just a case of trying to keep our chins up – home-schooling the kids and trying to keep them entertained during those first few months when you couldn’t really do much. It’s hard, and I definitely give it up to the school teachers because now I have more of an understanding of what they go through every day. Apart from that we didn’t do a huge amount, but it was quite nice in a way to just knuckle down and have a good chunk of family time. With being a rugby player you’re away from home a lot, always worrying about the next game and things like that, so this was just a chance to step back and really appreciate what you have at home.
Q: The other Gallagher Premiership clubs are getting through a lot of games at the moment, have you been watching much of it, and do you think it puts us at a disadvantage to not be involved?
CV: It’s good that rugby is back, full stop, and it’s also really useful for us to be getting a good look at the teams we’re going to be up against next season when it starts at the end of November. By the time our own season starts we can just focus on ourselves because we’ll have done most of our opposition analysis, and it frees us up to some extent. I think you can look at it as a good thing, although any professional rugby player will tell you they just want to be playing games. You want to be out there bashing each other, but it’s good that the sport is back.
Q: In terms of the upcoming season, what do you think the Falcons have to offer?
CV: We’ve got a lot of fantastic young players who are itching to get onto the pitch, and when you combine that with some of the older heads I think we have a great mix. I’ve really enjoyed watching the growth and emergence of our younger guys, seeing how much it means for them to represent the club, and it keeps us old boys going.
Overall, I feel we have the calibre of players to go out there in the Premiership and make an impact. Maybe coming out of Covid some people on the outside might not be tipping us to do too much, but from what I’m watching on TV at the moment I don’t see any reason why we can’t go out there and win a lot of games. As much as I’m excited to hopefully have an involvement myself during the season, I just think that the quality of our young guys alongside that experience is going to surprise a lot of people.