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1997: Take it home Fiji

March 02
12:00 2009

image Written By : SUN FIJI SPORTSDESK. There was a hive of rugby related activity over the week. The tribe met in Maqam and deliberated on how to host the Fiji supporters for dinner next Wednesday evening. Our kin based in the Emirates look forward to the world cup and seeing our team triumph at THE SEVENS come Saturday evening. It’s not an insurmountable task. The ‘97 and ‘05 teams have done the magic in Hong Kong. We can do it if we’re ultra smart and hungry for victory. Our preparations have been hindered by: injuries, withdrawals, travel paper delays and not having the entire team in one spot. It’s wacky logistics but we’ve got to persevere. It’s also a thrill to watch the 7’s advertisement on TV. Sireli Bobo and the ‘05 Fiji team feature prominently. Bobo’s exuberance is vividly captured in the footage.
I was at the Sharjah Wanderers Club rugby
tournament over the weekend. Our Al Ain vets were runners-up in the golden oldie 10’s. We pipped the Dubai Exiles 12-7, scored 5 tries against Sharjah, lost to Doha 0-3 then accounted for the Dubai Potbellies. It was a fantastic tournament! Over in Dubai, the Scottish ruggers were working off their jetlag at Dubai College. The early arrivals will have to acclimatize to the sudden change in weather. It has been pretty hot these last few days with sudden gusts of wind sending sand spiralling into the air.
By the time you read this column, my colleagues and I are on a 4-day trek in the desert; hopefully our pick-up will be at the rendezvous point in time so that we’ll be there for the kickoff on Thursday evening. Next Sunday and Monday are public holidays in the UAE; I look forward to hiking up Jebel Hafeet in sweet celebration of Fiji’s victory. I’m serious! We’re still in the running.
In keen anticipation of this Melrose Cup victory, Moira and I would like to share with readers Dr Waisale Serevi’s wonderful and crystal-clear recollection of the ‘97 super win at So Kon Po. It’s an extract transcribed from an interview that was conducted in December 2006. Serevi’s flashback will long be remembered by rugby connoisseurs; they capture the magic and endurance of our players.
Take it home Fiji!
In the grand final we were going to face our training ground partners South Africa. At the warm-up, Lemeki Koroi pointed towards the crowded stand. I glanced at the pavilion and sighted a banner that read “TAKE IT HOME FIJI!” I grinned and pointed out this lovely and thoughtful confidence booster. The message cheered us. We all paused and quietly soaked in the atmosphere. It was an incredible feeling and sight. I felt a good rush of adrenalin; the kind of feel-good sensation before a big match.
There were thousands of fluttering flags and colourful banners held aloft by the cheering crowd. The noise was deafening. The crowd launched into a series of Mexican waves and their energy lifted our spirits and sent it up and beyond the rafters of the arching pavilion roof. I sensed a purpose in the team as we neared kickoff time. It’s a body language thing. You could sense it in the readiness of the players.
Just before the RWC final in Ellis Park in 1995 against the indomitable All Blacks, the South African Springboks had the Mandela factor. Here at So Kon Po in the world cup final of the abbreviated code, Fiji had the Phil 4:13 factor. We were raring to sprint onto the field but ever dependable and ice-cool Tuikabe eased the nerves and calmed the team. “Va malua,” go slow and easy, his voice was soothing. The steelman was all fired up and he couldn’t wait to tackle Andre Venter. Koroi told us to leave Joost for him and when I looked at Vunibaka, I could see a start of that famous lop-sided grin of his breaking into action. Yeah, when ‘Baka grins you know everything is in place and the game’s going to be ours.
Joost’s merry men ran onto the field ahead of us and they tried to give us the psychological stare and scare but we trundled on and quietly waited for the kickoff. It was the champions versus the minnows, a David and Goliath match up!
The kickoff was muddled and from the resultant scrum on the halfway line, we passed to Vunibaka. He dashed down the right flank and was just ankle-tapped about three metres from the scoring line. ‘Baka rolled on the ground and managed to channel the ball to an ever-present Naituyaga but the green and gold defence arrived in numbers to scramble our charging stallion out in the corner. I quickly made my way to where the action was because the hyper-charged steelman looked like whacking someone; he was looking for a transgressor to give him an inch of an excuse to swing a haymaker.
Two tries down but we’re strong!
The South Africans then managed to win possession and they knew only one way forward – that was to run straight! The ball was quickly transferred to Stephen Brink and this twinkle-toe floated a perfect pass to Andre Venter who scooted for the corner. Tuikabe tracked him and managed to get a tight grip on Venter’s jersey but by then the big blond from Free State was in the in-goal zone.
Our defence was good and solid but the South Africans managed to pass into space and breech our man-to-man marking system twice. Big Andre Venter scored his second try when Bobby Skinstad floated a long spiral pass that dipped at Venter’s feet. The giant blond had to bend like a nimble flyhalf and scoop the bouncing ball off his ankle before crossing the white chalk.
As their kicker, Stephen Brink, attempted their second conversion, I gave the boys a hurried pep talk under the crossbar and urged the team to pull a try back before the interval so that we would be within striking distance in the second half.
Sure enough, the ball was swung in Vunibaka’s way and the tall winger dashed for the line. He was unstoppable! Joost and company gave chase but the Gau island bullet train was home and sure. I was afraid he’d go beyond the dead-ball line. ‘Baka was red-hot and there was no way of stopping our winger. As ‘Baka crossed the line to dot down his try I thought he looked so relaxed and unaffected by the enormity of the task; we were behind but this fellow Gauan strode across like we were well in the lead. He was a real cool cucumber! It was a seesaw game and we had to scramble to stop the South African attack before the halftime whistle. In one attacking green and gold wave, I just had to shoulder Stephen Brink into touch.
The momentum swings our way We trailed South Africa 14-7 at the interval but I sensed a shift in the momentum of the game. I noted their heavy breathing and the impact Vunibaka’s try had on their tired minds; Tuikabe and I urged the boys to pass the ball around in the second spell. Ravonu impressed on the need to vary the point of attack and be always in support.
Erenavula made his mark immediately after the restart and his try levelled the score, 14-14. Before that great passing movement I had lobbed an inside pass but it bounced off referee Steve Lander’s back and he called a scrum. From that play Vunibaka was released on the right flank and he managed to scoot off and then turn in off Brendan Paulse’s attempted tackle. ‘Baka in-passed to Tuikabe who smartly transferred it to Lemeki Koroi. Our tigerish halfback then passed it on to Erenavula. When this Namatakula flyer dotted the ball straight behind the uprights I knew we had made a breakthrough.
Heroic Koroi then scored his double within a minute. Our black pearl Manasa Bari and I switched positions and roles. He stood at pivot while I took a spot on the flank placing Vunibaka at the rover’s post. From a scrum, Koroi passed to Bari who ran straight at two defenders. He must have confused them because he managed to wriggle out of a tackle and head onwards. Vunibaka made an inside run and when he received Bari’s pass he just dashed diagonally across to his left. Again, the scrambling South African defence just managed to ankle-tap him. Koroi was first on the spot and he held onto an inch-high bounce before surging across the line.
I missed the conversion but we were 19-14 in the lead and looking good. South Africa came back but Paulse threw a dud pass infield which rolled forward towards me. I quickly snapped it up and set Erenavula free. He made ground then switched the ball to Koroi. I will never forget that moment when Koroi dashed onwards to glory. He dotted down his double and we were off, 24-14. We shifted gears and upped the tempo. And, though Brink scored less than a minute before the hooter to make it 24-21, we had the game by the scruff of the neck.
That last scrum was very important for us. We just had to hook it back, control the ball and whack it into touch to herald in fulltime. The bulky South African forwards tried their best to rattle our nerves and win a “tighthead.” They buckled the scrum and shoved but our front three of: Tuikabe, Naituyaga and Erenavula held on. I rushed to the base and retrieved the ball; Koroi – positioned on our twenty-two metre line – was ready to receive it and when I spun it out to him he ran parallel to the tryline and booted the ball into the crowd. Referee Steve Lander’s final blast of the whistle was sweet music.
We did the impossible!
The Melrose Cup was finally ours! It was a long four-year wait after that semifinal loss to England in the cold in Scotland in 1993. The whole team had starred in this final. We had helped one another to cross the try-line and I scored 117 points in the tournament including 9 tries. Yes, that haul was a total team effort.
Receiving the Melrose Cup was a dream, an indescribable moment for the whole team. The ground announcer and the media were over-generous in their praises. When we trooped down from the presentation ceremony the fans sitting along the aisle clapped us in honour.
Again we had to satisfy the pack of smiling photographers – they endeavoured to capture us at our jubilant best on film. A few more rounds of team photos were taken. All around us flash bulbs continually clicked and winked. We were mobbed by happy fans and the ground security staff tried their best to ward off a couple of tipsy spectators. Our slow lap of honour around the stadium to acknowledge the fans was an emotional experience. The ever-faithful mob was cheering us on and they stayed for some time in that packed stadium. Our Fiji supporters were over the moon. Grown men cried tears of jubilation and it was a colourful sea of happy Fijians rejoicing in the Hong Kong twilight.
The organisers of the 7s RWC named four of our champion team in a World Sevens Team line-up. Aminiasi Naituyaga and Jope Tuikabe partnered Andre Venter upfront. Marika Vunibaka and I completed the back four with Joost van der Westhuizen and Stephen Brinks. It was a pity that New Zealand could not field its star players. Jonah Lomu, Christian Cullen and our own Waisiki Masirewa were not part of Tietjens’ squad. They would have made a big difference.
Much later that night, in the midst of our victory celebrations, Naituyaga turned to Koroi and said, “Thank you for reading that banner, had it been Vunibaka, he’d have trouble deciphering the message and we’d miss out on its impact.”
We doubled up in laughter at that wisecrack. Knowing Vunibaka, he just flashed his trademark lop-sided grin and smiled. He was the quietest among us, strange for a Gauan islander. Erenavula wondered whether Vunibaka ever mentally-rehearsed before a game.
When this subject was put across to Vunibaka, the winger remarked that he only ‘visualized’ his village and the swaying palm trees and what motivated him was sitting in front of a charcoal fire, working up an appetite, while waiting for the fish to be grilled. A sports scientist and psychologist would be puzzled with the inner-mechanism of a Fijian player’s brain. We seem to block out all the hype and do things our way. Yes, that glorious night Vunibaka’s gaze stretched out over Hong Kong Bay and sighted his village. He was a homeboy! Victorious but glued to his roots!
We had a wonderful time sitting around the kava bowl that victorious night reminiscing and teasing one another. The rounds of wisecracks would be punctuated with singing and those choruses were sung with gusto. The bellhops in the Furama Hotel must have thought that we were crazy. The guests on that floor and the management were too polite to complain.
The kosa was remixed a couple of times. Tuikabe told us that in Lebanon the senior UNIFIL officers from the other contingents always said that an off-duty Fijian trooper knows where the last grain of the kava supply is stored. “The bugger would even risk tiptoeing through no man’s land to get to that last kava supply.”
Our first ever Melrose Cup win was celebrated by our people. We were feted when we returned home. The Philatelic service honoured us by placing our individual portraits on Fiji’s fifty-cent stamps. The traditional rivals in the team would phone one another and put in the mickey. To this day, Leveni Duvuduvukula would still claim that he was fairer than what the stamp designer made him be. My fellow Gauan – Mr Silence – would remark to me that his portrait does not do justice to his quiet demeanor.
Our Naitasiri halfback Lemeki Koroi would really get Vunibaka riled by saying that Vunibaka’s pout looked like a Sweet Lip fish’s attempt to kiss the coral. Vunibaka would retort: What do you landlubbers know about coral?

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you said it
"I support it 200 percent, I am with FRU, the country and the people of Fiji. We want to bid to get one of the HSBC stops in Fiji."
Waisale Serevi
Sevens Legend
March 2009
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