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."
Defence Coach Jonny Bell admitted this week that the European Rugby Challenge Cup victory in Bayonne was a welcome one, stressed that Benetton Treviso will pose a tough test on Saturday at Kingsholm but that Gloucester are determined to deliver in front of their own fans.
Motu Matu'u is looking to make up for lost time this week as the Cherry and Whites head to Basque Country to take on Bayonne in the European Rugby Challenge Cup opener. The Samoan hooker made his first appearance in the jersey last weekend, and is hoping to contribute to the team this weekend.
Gloucester's attentions turn to Europe this weekend as they travel to Bayonne for their opening fixture of this season's European Rugby Challenge Cup. Forwards Coach Trevor Woodman told GRTV that the Cherry and Whites will be aiming to top their pool as they've done for the past two seasons, but is well aware of how tough it is to win in France.
Although understandably disappointed at seeing victory slip away at the last minute, Ben Morgan said after the game at Exeter that there were plenty of positives that Gloucester could take from the game.
Speaking after a last-gasp try from Exeter earned the Chiefs a 27-27 draw at Sandy Park on Saturday, Charlie Sharples admitted to mixed feelings. The game saw him score a try on his 200th competitive appearance for the club, but the frustration from not closing out the win was clear.
David Humphreys was minutes away from a winning interview on Saturday afternoon, but a late try from Exeter Chiefs meant the points were shared at Sandy Park. Humphreys spoke with the local media after the 27-27 draw.
Speaking to the media ahead of Saturday's Aviva Premiership fixture away at Exeter Chiefs, Director of Rugby David Humphreys reiterated that there are elements of Gloucester's game that are in good shape at present, that the performance against Bath was a step forward from Newcastle but that individual errors are costing the Cherry and Whites dear.
Centre Matt Scott, a try-scorer in Bayonne last weekend, insists that Gloucester are taking nothing for granted when they welcome Benetton Treviso to Kingsholm on Saturday in the European Rugby Challenge Cup (kick off 3pm).