LESLEY VAINIKOLO - arguably the most explosive and devastating finisher in Super League history - will switch codes and join Gloucester Rugby from Bradford Bulls on 1st July on a three-year deal.
The giant 6'2" winger, who weighs in at 110kg, has scored an unprecedented 143 tries in 146 games since joining the Bulls from Canberra Raiders in 2002, and will add pace as well as physical threat to the Gloucester back-line.
Released by Bradford midway through his current contract after a personal request from the player, Vainikolo, 28, will link up at Kingsholm with former Bulls team-mate Karl Pryce for a full pre-season with Gloucester ahead of the 2007/08 campaign.
Dean Ryan, Gloucester's head coach, described the signing as "one of the most exciting in the club's history".
"I'm absolutely delighted that we have signed Lesley," Ryan said. "He has the potential to be a world-class player in rugby union.
"We had informal discussions a couple of years ago about a possible move, and when we heard that his desire to play union was still strong we moved quickly.
"His try-scoring record is without equal and the challenge now is for us to create the opportunity for him to transfer his abilities to 15-a-side rugby. The modern game requires power as well as pace, which Lesley will bring us.
"Both Lesley and Karl Pryce should be fit and raring to go after a full pre-season, increasing the physicality of the backline alongside our existing options."
Vainikolo, known throughout rugby league as 'the Volcano', has scored 14 tries in 12 appearances for New Zealand, including nine during the 2000 World Cup. In his second season with Bradford he scored 28 tries in 32 appearances and was voted best rugby league player in the world. The following season he destroyed the Super League scoring record with 37 touch-downs in just 26 matches, and his try-scoring ratio has remained at around 1 per game ever since.
Vainikolo said: "First and foremost I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone connected with Bradford Bulls - including my team-mates, the staff and all the supporters - for making the last 5 years so memorable. Bradford is my home and I know I'll be back. I'm determined to go out on a high and want to contribute as much as possible over the next 6 weeks before I make the switch.
"I'm really proud to be joining a club of Gloucester's reputation. They have shown this season what potential they have in reaching the Premiership final, and having met with Dean Ryan and the other coaches I know there isn't a better place for me to be to learn about union.
"Kingsholm is a great stadium, even more so when the new Grandstand is completed, and from speaking with Karl Pryce the off-field set-up is everything you would expect from a top side."
Peter Hood, Chairman of Bradford Bulls, said the decision to release Vainikolo had not been taken lightly.
"Lesley came to see me and said that he still had a burning desire to see if he could replicate his success in rugby league in union.
"There aren't many players who have achieved as much as Lesley has with Bradford, or who have given fans so much pleasure with their performances, which I'm not sure we will ever see beaten in Super League. In view of this and his 5 years of unflinching commitment and service to the Bulls, we agreed that should we be able to secure a world-class replacement we would not stand in the way of his dream.
"Lesley knows he is welcome back at Bradford at any time and we genuinely wish him every success with this move."
With such a short turnaround between the two games, and Gloucester looking to reintegrate several players into the line-up after the Autumn international series, Tom Savage told GRTV that the Cherry and Whites will keep changes to a minimum for the European Rugby Challenge Cup game in Zebre on Saturday.
Gloucester travel to Italy this weekend to take on Zebre in Round Four of the European Rugby Challenge Cup. The Cherry and Whites defeated the Italian side 35-10 last Sunday, but Director of Rugby David Humphreys is looking for an improved performance in the return fixture.
Skipper Billy Twelvetrees, speaking to GRTV after the 35-10 over Zebre, was happy with the bonus point win over the Italian side but admitted Gloucester will need to tighten up for the return fixture in Parma.
Gloucester Rugby welcome Sione Kalamafoni, Greig Laidlaw and Tom Palmer back to the starting line up and feature David Halaifonua in a matchday squad for the first time, as they resume Aviva Premiership action against Bath Rugby at Kingsholm on Saturday (kick off 5:30pm).