Feature

Rugby Builds Fiji, Australia Ties Stronger

The relationship on the rugby pitch has helped bring Fiji and Australia closer together off it, with some of the strongest ties forged through sport exchanges.
21 Oct 2019 14:13
Rugby Builds Fiji, Australia Ties Stronger
Fijian-born Australian Wallabies centre Samu Kerevi in action against Fiji during the Rugby World Cup in Japan on September 21, 2019. Inset: Australian High Commissioner to Fiji John Feakes.

The Fijian influence in the Australian Wallabies squad shone at the Rugby World Cup despite the team’s quarter-final exit at the hands of England.

Marika Koroibete, starting alongside compatriots Isi Naisarani and Samu Kerevi, scored a try and was denied a second in the 40-16 loss.

Tevita Kuridrani, the fourth Fijian in the squad, was left out from the match 23 despite his 10 points in the tournament.

The quartet were at their brilliant best for the two-time World Cup champions, scoring six tries between them and featuring prominently throughout the pool games.

The 27-year-old Koroibete scored one of the tries of the tournament with a 55-metre dash to the tryline against Georgia.

The success of the four highlights the significant contribution Fijian players have made to Australian rugby, and how that has impacted relations between Fiji and Australia.

And they are not the only ones.

Some other popular Fijian names that have played with distinction for the Wallabies include, Lote Tuqiri, Henry Speight, Radike Samo, Ilivasi Tabua, Qele Ratu, Sefa Naivalu, Eto Nabuli, Taqele Naiyaravoro and the list goes on.

The relationship on the rugby pitch has helped bring Fiji and Australia closer together off it, with some of the strongest ties forged through sport exchanges.

CAPTURING HEARTS

Whether in rugby league or union, Fijian players have captured the hearts of Australian fans with electrifying runs, aggressive tackling and unpredictable offloading.

The movement of players has also been beneficial for Fiji’s economy, with sports remittances worth roughly $18.4 million or 11 percent of Fiji’s remittance industry.

Australia’s High Commissioner to Fiji, John Feakes, believes they owe “a massive debt of gratitude” to Fijian players for strengthening Australian teams, particularly the Wallabies.

Australian High Commissioner to Fiji John Feakes.

Australian High Commissioner to Fiji John Feakes.

However, Feakes hopes World Rugby can soon formulate a plan that will allow Fijian players to play professionally abroad without having to sacrifice representing their country of origin internationally.

“I sometimes have misgivings about having so many Fijians in the team (Wallabies) and wonder whether, at some point, we need to look at how Fijians can play professional rugby in Australia but when it comes to international rugby play for Fiji,” he said.

“They’re starring in the team at the moment but it’s not just Australia; it’s also England, France and New Zealand who have many, many Fijian stars in their teams.

“Imagine how powerful Fiji would be if they were able to select all of the various players who are now starring in teams around the world.”

The High Commissioner compared the current situation to the popular State of Origin rugby league series that is played annually between the New South Wales Blues and the Queensland Maroons.

He said: “The State of Origin competition came about because in the 60s, 70s and 80s, the New South Wales competition would suck all of Queensland’s best players south.

“Those players would play for NSW and they’d absolutely get flogged by Queensland even though almost half of the NSW team was made up of originally Queenslanders.

“It came about so that if you were born in Queensland but were playing in NSW, you went to play for Queensland in the State of Origin.”

Feakes believes Fijian players have become popular for their immense natural talent and entertaining play style.

X-FACTOR

Fiji Airways Flying Fijians head coach John McKee once described it as the “X-factor,” saying that Fijian players played with a “warrior spirit.”

Feakes believes that flair has endeared Fijian players to rugby fans, and made Fiji’s brand of rugby “a very attractive product to watch.”

“They’re big, incredibly skilful, and tough but it comes down to that flair which they bring in enormous amounts to the teams they are part of,” he said.

“I was watching a video of the 1964 Fijian men’s team that was playing Wales and the Welsh fell in love with that team. Fiji almost came back and overwhelmed the Welsh in the second-half.

“Wales in those days were one of the strongest teams in the world, as they are now. And you saw at the end of that match the Fijian captain being cheered off on the shoulders of two Welsh players.”

The Welsh won that match 28-22.

RUGBY LEAGUE

Fijian players have also contributed and benefited from playing rugby league in Australia, which is a small but growing sport in Fiji.

Parramatta Eels sensation Maika Sivo is the latest star to burst on to the National Rugby League (NRL) scene, scoring 22 tries in his rookie season.

There have been many others before Sivo, including Melbourne Storm’s Suliasi Vunivalu, Newcastle Knights’ Akuila Uate, Penrith Panthers’ Viliame Kikau, Noa Nadruku of the Canberra Raiders and big Petero Civoniceva.

The Australian and Fijian Governments are keen to promote rugby league in Fiji despite union being the principal code.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison flew into the country two weeks ago to watch two Australian teams take on the Fijian national men’s and women’s sides.

During the visit, Morrison announced the inclusion of a Fijian rugby league team – the Kaiviti Silktails– in the 2020 Ron Massey Cup, a semi-professional competition in Australia.

The aim is to create a pathway for the players into the NRL, where they can earn economic benefits and improve the standards of the Fijian national team.

In terms of diplomacy, the Silktails will likely bind Fiji and Australia closer together with the view that through sports, relationships can be strengthened and friendships deepened.

Feakes said: “There are many things that we have in common and a love of sport is one of them. Sports is almost a metaphor for the relationship.”

Edited by Leone Cabenatabua

Feedback: sheldon.chanel@fijisun.com.fj

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