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Super Brotherhood

True blue star winger remembers the start of professional rugby 20 years ago Auckland Joeli Vidiri strides into the stadium viewing room, overlooking the Pukekohe rugby park where he scored
23 Feb 2016 12:35
Super Brotherhood

True blue star winger remembers the start of professional rugby 20 years ago

Auckland Joeli Vidiri strides into the stadium viewing room, overlooking the Pukekohe rugby park where he scored 280 first-class points over seven seasons during the mid-to-late 1990s.

He settles down into his seat and smiles at the camera I’ve set up to record the interview. Behind him is a large-scale poster wall featuring himself and two other greats from the Counties-Manukau rugby dynasty, Errol Brain and the late Jonah Lomu.

In fact all around the Counties-Manukau Rugby Football Union’s headquarters, photos of former players adorn the walls but most notably are the many images of Vidiri and Lomu, two of the club’s favourite sons.

We’ve met at Ecolight Stadium in Pukekohe to talk about the birth of Super Rugby which kicked off in February 1996, marking the beginning of the sport’s professional era. Pukekohe is not where Vidiri featured for the Auckland Blues franchise for six seasons in Super Rugby but it is where the Fijian-born winger began his rugby career in New Zealand.

“To come over in 1994 and join Counties and Pukekohe Rugby Club, it was a new chapter in my life and it was a mind-blowing experience for me,” Vidiri saiid.

“When I played my first game for Pukekohe it was different from home. Back home the weather was great, it was hot and the ground was hard and dusty. Here, for my first game it was wet, cold, the ground was muddy … but I really enjoyed it.”

 

Pukekohe connection

Vidiri’s connection with Pukekohe and Counties-Manukau rugby was made when he played for Fiji at the Hong Kong Sevens in 1994. It’s where he first met soon-to-be close friend Lomu as well as players Eric Rush and Luke Erenavula.

“We had a good talk in Hong Kong (about rugby in New Zealand) and when I went back to Fiji, I trialled for Fiji and played a few tests, then I got the call.

Luke was about to leave Counties-Manukau to go to the North Sydney Bears, the rugby league team. The coach for Pukekohe wouldn’t release him until he found a replacement. So when I came back from playing a test in Tonga, I had news to go to the New Zealand Embassy to get a visa to join the Pukekohe rugby team. That’s where it first started.”

Vidiri’s injection into Counties-Manukau rugby came just as New Zealand rugby was grappling with the idea of turning professional.

“In ‘94, ‘95 and ‘96, which was the start of professional rugby, for us, we still went to training in the morning and then some of us went off to work. Sometimes you trained once a day because of shortage of people in the squad who were still working. So we weren’t fully in the professional [era], but still learning about the changes in the sport.”

The World Rugby removed all restrictions on payments or benefits to those connected with rugby in 1995 to head off Super League in Australia, which was enticing union players with large salaries.

The rugby unions from New Zealand, South Africa and Australia formed SANZAR that year and work began to set up Super Rugby as a professional competition.

“In 1995 when the guys came back from the Rugby World Cup, that’s when we started to hear the rumours going around [about professional rugby],” Vidiri says.

“We had Super Rugby coming in and also the [WRC] come up as well. Some of the senior All Blacks were ready to sign there [WRC] and the New Zealand Rugby Union said, if you sign there, you’re not going to wear the black jersey anymore. At the end of the day the black jersey was more important and the senior players signed with the New Zealand Rugby Union.”

 

First  Super Rugby  game

And so the first game of the inaugural Super 12 Rugby competition kicked off in Palmerston North between the Auckland Blues and the Wellington Hurricanes on Friday, March 1, 1996.

Vidiri has no trouble recalling the game as the Blues went on to defeat the Hurricanes 36-28 and claim rights to winning the first game of professional rugby in the southern hemisphere.

“It was so special, the boys were like, wow, now it’s real, and it’s time to reap the benefits of all those days training.

“Unfortunately I was on the bench that night, we had Greg Cooper (fullback), Jonah (left wing) and Waisake Sotutu (right wing) as our back three. It was spectacular, it was physical. You see these great people, they’re opposition on the field, but after the game just great friends.

Vidiri played his way into the starting 15 for the Blues, cementing his place on the right wing. Travelling overseas was a new experience but one he embraced. Out of all the rugby venues he ran on to that year, he came to love Auckland’s Eden Park the most. Watching the leadership qualities and relationship between senior players Zinzan Brooke and Sean Fitzpatrick was also a eye-opener.

“Zinzan was the Blues captain and Fitzy was the All Blacks captain… but I never saw Fitzy over-rule Zinzan. He just went with what Zinzan said.

It was interesting to see how they worked together and how they complemented each other.”

 

End of Super 12

Fast forward to the end of the inaugural Super 12 season and the Blues are at home in Auckland playing South Africa’s Natal Sharks in the grand final.

“It was a different atmosphere altogether, seeing how people prepared and it was probably one of the biggest games I’ve ever played in.

“Our coach, Sir Graham Henry, told us that to win, we had to raise the bar to another level so we could beat Natal.”

He remembers the entire Blues backline from the game, which featured Lomu on the left wing, Adrian Cashmore at fullback and Vidiri on the right wing.

“We had Eroni Clarke in the centre, Johnny Ngauamo came on for Lee Stensness at second-five, Carlos Spencer at number 10 and JT (Junior Tonu’u) at halfback.

The team also featured Craig Dowd, Sean Fitzpatrick, Solo Brown, Robin Brooke, Charles Riechelmann, Michael Jones, Andrew Blowers and Zinzan Brooke.

The Blues went on to win the match 45-21, on May 25, 1996.

“To win that game, what an experience. We were the first Super 12 Rugby competition winners of the professional rugby era in the southern hemisphere.”

Vidiri’s statistics for the Blues are just as impressive as his numbers for Counties-Manukau. For the Blues, he earn 61 caps from 1996 to 2001, scoring 215 points. His 10 tries for the 1996 season put him at third place among the top 10 try scores for that year.

Players were still coming to terms with what it actually meant to be a professional rugby player at the end of the 1996 season. For Vidiri, it opened up opportunities.

“How to approach the media, life after rugby, how to look after yourself, how to support each other on and off the field.

Vidiri’s success with the Blues was rewarded when he was selected for the All Blacks in 2008. His rugby career was cut short when in 2001 he was diagnosed with glomerular nephritis, which left him with just 1 per cent of kidney operation. It would be a 14-year wait to have a kidney transplant in May 2015.

Vidiri says players of the current Super Rugby probably have their brothers of 20 years ago to thank for the advantages enjoyed now.

“It’s a lot different now. The technology involved, working with people in specialist areas, everything to make it easier for them. It shows the difference but also shows we’ve moved with the times and we’re catching up with other professional sports.”

The new-look Super Rugby season kicks off on Friday and will include three new teams each from Japan, Argentina and South Africa, taking the total number of teams to 18.

And it leads on to perhaps one area neglected so far in professional rugby, the Pacific nations.

“We’re expanding into Asia and Argentina and it’s really disappointing for the Pacific nations. Australia and New Zealand could help support a team from the Pacific to be part of this and it would be a good way to develop the game back home. It could grow the game and develop a pathway for [Pacific] people to follow.

“Fiji has given a lot to rugby in New Zealand and Australia and now it’s time to give back to the Pacific Islands.”

– Stuff

Feedback:  oseab@fijisun.com.fj

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