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The rugby class of Big

Written By : By MANIUE VILSONI and MOIRA VILSONI-RADUVA (An Al Ain-Waila collaboration). The national rugby selectors have made their call. May the team rise to the challenge and help
23 Feb 2009 12:00

image Written By : By MANIUE VILSONI and MOIRA VILSONI-RADUVA (An Al Ain-Waila collaboration). The national rugby selectors have made their call. May the team rise to the challenge and help defend the Melrose Cup with all their might.
It’s possible to win in Dubai! Let’s be stronger, smarter and play with guile.
In announcing the squad on Saturday at the Marist 7’s, the selectors have closed the chapter on the international rugby 7’s careers of Dr. Waisele Serevi, Marika Vunibaka and Viliame Satala.
The trio has left a legacy that is hard to emulate.
They’ve brought the Melrose Cup twice to our sunny shores.
We say “thank you” for the memories and do share your knowledge with the greenhorns.
You have a lot to offer to Fiji’s rugby nursery.
This column travels down memory lane and focuses on the rugby class of ‘97.
Back then when the selectors announced the team to Hong Kong there were doubts raised about: fitness and commitment.
The armchair critics had a field day probing and scrutinizing the playing roster but the rugby class of ‘97 shocked the world when it pipped South Africa 24-21 in a final hailed as one of the best exhibitions of running rugby.
In December 2006 Moira Vilsoni-Raduva had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Waisale Serevi for a book project.
The maestro’s candid recollection of Fiji’s first Melrose Cup winning team makes wonderful reading. Serevi did cast an insight into how the late Rupeni Ravonu selected his team and the bubbly spirit that he inculcated to make the class of ‘97 a rip-roaring success.
This is an excerpt transcribed from that interview and ghost-written and edited by the Vilsoni’s.
It is a fitting tribute to the late Rupeni Ravonu and his merry men and also a time to bid goodbye to Serevi’s illustrious rugby 7’s career on the international stage.
The maestro has given his utmost best to Fiji’s rugby fortune – this excerpt humbly attempts to share with readers his: dedication, love, player-analysis and innate knowledge of rugby.
Ravonu’s experience guided us through
Our coach, Rupeni Ravonu, had been a three-time winner in Hong Kong in ‘77, ‘78, and ‘80.
He did make the ‘81 side but they did not reach the final. His experience at this level was worth more than a ton of gold.
Big Rups, as we affectionately called him, was a sprinter turned forward.
He was a hell of a barnstorming player in his time. Rups was from the old school of hard knocks and he had matured over the years.
This showed in his man-management skills and player selections.
The wily feller thought outside the box and he was never afraid to make uncanny selectorial moves which baffled his peers.
Ravonu’s ace selection was Jope Tuikabe. Tuikabe oozed discipline, extreme fitness and player-management skills.
He was my deputy captain and JT made life easy for the coach and I. JT led by example and he was not a barker like Vesi.
This gentle giant had a different approach to rugby, he simply did the business in all aspects of the game and you just followed him!
He was an ever-present strong character on the field. When you talk about support play you mention JT and his ranging runs. Just when you think you’ve been boxed in by the opposition, you’d have JT hovering over your shoulder to lend support. He’d glide from one breakdown to the other using the shortest route and time.
His stamina, energy, anticipation, skills, physicality and speed got us through the tough patches.
Tuikabe was both a scavenger and an organiser and he was the ultimate player! In fact he made things possible! It was an inspiration to see Tuikabe charging ahead.
Ravonu was a better reader of players than the armchair critics.
There was a lot of brouhaha when Ravonu named his team.
The legion of critics sharpened their tongues and pens when Luke Erenavula was given a spot at hooker. “Where does his loyalty lie?” they questioned.
Erenavula had won a Cup winner’s medal in Hong Kong with Gordon Tietjens’ New Zealand side in 1996.
The doomsayers questioned his: switch of a jersey, speed and commitment.
This Namatakula flyer ignored the broadside, rolled with the ‘body shots’ and concentrated on the task at hand.
Ravonu knew that if the Counties-Manukau selectors (plus Tietjens) had faith in Erenavula then this Nadroga flier still had it in him to win the Melrose Cup. He was no turncoat!
The black pearl, Manasa Bari, was next under the critics’ microscope.
“He’s injury prone!” they hawed and hayed. Another line was, “he’s past his use-by-date and look at his injured shoulder!”
The self-appointed physiotherapists were doom-sayers and their off-the-cuff assessments fueled the rugby rumour mill.
Bari was a hit in the Otago Highlanders’ team and his offshore career could have blossomed had it not been for his injuries. His dodgy knee was becoming problematic.
He added experience and pace to our squad.
Tears of sadness roll down my cheeks when I think of the late Aminiasi Naituyaga, our steelman from Nadroga.
He was the terror from the western side of Fiji.
This proud son of Nadroga was a favourite choice at prop and this ranging loose cannon knew no obstacle.
He had fire in his belly and he breathed fire into his tackles.
If there was a fault in his play, it was Naituyaga himself – his physicality! I feared that Naituyaga’s rib re-arranging tackles would be judged too rough by a whistle happy referee and I prayed that the steelman would never be sent off for a spell in the sinbin.
He wasn’t called steelman for nothing. Naituyaga was our “chiropractor” like Brian Lima.
He mowed down anything that moved and he was our enforcer.
His reputation preceded him and many opposition players momentarily panicked when Naituyaga appeared out of no where like a charging stallion.
Lemeki Koroi had the nod for the halfback’s spot and this Highlander had the dash, finesse, deft pass and uncanny ability to wriggle his way through the best of defences.
Koroi wasn’t a flashy player; he just concentrated on the basics and added in his warrior instinct into the team equation.
Koroi’s take-no-prisoners mentality would serve us very well in the tight matches.
Marika Vunibaka played outside the black pearl and this speedster was an unknown quantity. Ravonu had scouted and plucked this grinning giant from Gau Island. When it came to size, speed and strength, Vunibaka had it all.
This very quiet lad was an enigma; he only turned ‘eloquent’ when on the field.
His performance spoke volumes and this 1997 world cup success made Vunibaka’s rugby career soar to unimaginable heights.
When Robbie Deans and the wise heads from Canterbury, New Zealand, later signed ‘Baka for the red ‘n blacks, I wasn’t surprised one bit.
That Hong Kong effort marketed the Gau Island man to the best provincial side in the world.
Inoke Maraiwai brought a different dimension to the team.
He was a big strapping boy-man who played smart-rugby. It was good to have him on the bench. He was more than a super-sub.
When the going got tough, Inoke was the man to have.
He’d size up the situation and rip right into the action.
He was our academic, the brains backing up the brawns!
Taniela Qauqau and Luveni Duvuduvukula were outstanding team mates.
They all fitted in like a jigsaw puzzle. Ravonu knew who he wanted and he set out the targets for each player.
Qauqau was a utility backline player who could spy a gap a mile out. He’d pin his ears back and just cruise through the defensive screen.
Duvuduvukula was a tank – a battering ram. He’s a winger turned forward.
Whenever this burly feller ran, he made huge inroads into opposition territory.
He had the strength to stand in tackles and offload to the ever present support.
Our trainer Tomasi Cama was a fitness fanatic and the bearded wizard sometimes whispered his desire to run onto the field.
At times, he looked more enthusiastic than the players.
Tom has that cheeky-twinkle in his eyes when he hears the name “So Kon Po.”
He’d run and shadow-punch with exuberance and his positiveness rubbed off on the team.
Big Rups had chosen well.
He needed a mixed crew of veterans and greenhorns who could do the rugby business.
We looked like a motley crew but we had confidence in the coach and ourselves.
Yes, we didn’t have the high-tech training facilities and financial resources but our go-get-it team culture made up for these shortages.
The commentators must have sensed that this was a different outfit from the 1993 team who suffered in the cold in Edinburgh.
The So Kon Po weather suits us.
We could thrive in the humidity or in the Monsoon rain and this was our year!
We did not concede a single point in the pool games; only when we reached the semifinal against Samoa (that was our sixth game) did the opposition manage to cross our line.
I had contributed 59 points in our first 3 games.
In our 34-14 semifinal win against Samoa, we demonstrated to the fans and the millions of teevee viewers that we were here to play! Samoa scored first but we kept our composure and piled on the points.
Their coach Niko Palamo was gracious in defeat and knowing the Samoans, they cheered for their Pacific Brothers in the final.
“Sick or what, I’m playing!”
We had a bit of a setback and it gave us a fright when Naituyaga became very sick at the start of the tournament. He was really down with a sudden illness.
The steelman was vomiting blood and Ravonu informed him that he’d be rested. Naituyaga pleaded with Ravonu to let him play and reassured the coach that he’d come right.
It touched our hearts when he quipped from his bed,” Sick or what, I’m playing!” He continually pleaded to Ravonu to give him just a chance to prove his fitness. His stern “No!” to the medics to rest him from the tournament was the “NO!” of a rugby warrior.
At the team runs we seemed to be bumping into the South Africans at every session.
They were the darlings of the crowd; the reigning Webb Ellis winners, world champions after their 15-12 win over the mighty All Blacks in Ellis Park in 1995.
Joost van der Westhuizen was the star for the green and golds. This pin up boy of South African rugby was joined by senior players: Andre Venter, Paul Synman, Stephen Brink, Peter Russoew and Bobby Skinstad.
They were a formidable unit. The South Africans were the reigning world champions in the full version of the game. They had everything going for them.
The organisers had teamed us together to use the same training facilities.
It was as if they knew who’d play in the grand final. Joost and company were the big time stars in Hong Kong; we just did our little humble thing.
I could sense that they were sizing us up and figuring out how to outmuscle us. Every time our two teams crisscrossed one another’s path, we looked like a gaggle of underfed geese ambling past a prized flock of turkeys.
They had it all: their physique, training gear, team bags, track suits and flashy ray ban sunglasses projected health, wealth and confidence. Yes, it showed!
We pulled through the pool games and the early phases of the knockout stage without any major hiccups.
Ravonu instructed us to take one game at a time. Naituyaga started to get into top gear as we progressed through the tournament.
He kept giving us that famous steelman’s nod which meant “I’m ok, just wait and see!”

Next Tuesday the Vilsoni’s will bring you more about this first Melrose Cup winning team.

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