From Highlander to Crusader, Veainu now Rebel

NEW REBEL: Telusa Veainu.
NEW REBEL: Telusa Veainu.

Telusa Veainu used to make frozen pizzas for a living as he weighed up his future as a professional rugby player, and ironically he now finds himself earning a crust next to Melbourne's Little Italy.

The 22-year-old former Highlanders and Crusaders wing is settling into third Super Rugby environment at the Melbourne Rebels training base in Carlton, one far removed from his comfort zone at Australia's newest franchise.

Veainu certainly has plenty on his plate as he adapts into a new city, coaching regime and a roster where he only has background with three team-mates.

Fortunately the Kawakawa-born finisher is flatting with former Wellington fullback and New Zealand under-20s team-mate Jason Woodward.

He also played with flanker Scott Fuglistaller at the Highlanders in 2012 while four-test All Black Tamati Ellison was also based in Dunedin before his current playing stint in Japan.

''It's been pretty tough getting used to the place, there's a bigger pace to back home,'' said Veainu, who left his previous base in Napier after Hawke's Bay was beaten by Tasman in the provincial Championship final in late October.

Veainu arrived in Melbourne as a largely unheralded addition to a remodelled Rebels backline that will be relying on marquee signing Ellison to add a degree of stability.

One of the more adventurous teams with ball in hand, the Rebels attacking capability has undeniably been blunted by the loss of erratic, though match-winning, Wallabies Kurtley Beale and James O'Connor; halfback Nick Phipps and Auckland-born former Wallabies wing Cooper Vuna are also playing elsewhere in 2014.

To underscore the Rebels change of philosophy regarding recruitment Bruce Hegarty is the designated first five-eighth, a position previously occupied by inconsistent English import Danny Cipriani, O'Connor and Beale.

A former Brisbane Broncos league prospect, Hegarty made six appearances for the Rebels this season and officially steps up for the extended playing squad to play the pivotal role.

Halfback Luke Burgess, who returned from France to be in contention for Wallabies' duties against the British and Irish Lions, is another key addition as he hopes to revive his test career.

Veainu accepts that compared to previous seasons, the Rebels back division is an unknown quantity.

Yet unfamiliarity should not necessarily breed contempt.

''I think the exciting thing is not many people know about us as a backline. We've got heaps of young guys and we've got nothing to lose,'' he said, looking forward to developing under head coach Tony McGahan and backline co-ordinator Sean Hedger.

''I think the average age is 22, it's a good learning curve for all of us.''

Veainu was first identified as a potential top flight player by St Andrew's College in Christchurch and he graduated to the New Zealand under-20s side that won the 2010 world title in Argentina.

He scored 21 tries in 34 games for Canterbury between 2010-12 but could never establish himself at Super Rugby level and made just nine appearances combined for the southern franchises.

So when the Rebels expressed an interest during this year's provincial competition, he opted to sign for two years.

''I'm a big family man so it was a big decision to make a fresh start but I wanted more game time so I'm here and I'm not looking back.''

Although he was used sparingly by Todd Blackadder this season, Veainu said he still absorbed plenty of knowledge while at the Crusaders.

''You see what it takes for them to reach the next level. I've learned a lot from them and now it's up to me to get out there and show it,'' said Veainu, who is contesting a wing berth with Tom Kingston and Tom English.

A regular start on Vuna's old flank could certainly justify the move of a player who once took a year out to mull over his future while making supermarket pizzas.

''I didn't know if ntsGwhethernte I should be giving rugby a go,'' he said, pleased to have persevered with the sport.

''No disrespect but it was one of those jobs where you wanted to push yourself, you didn't just want to work there.''