The drive from Nadi to Sigatoka in Fiji takes about an hour and a half, despite only being 60-odd kilometres long. It’s a prey slow, old road, but when you finally make your way into Sigatoka, there’s a sign that says “Welcome to RugbyTown”.
Sigatoka is home to the Nadroga Stallions, Fiji’s national champion team, and it’s fair to say the locals are as parochial as it gets. So when a new team, the Fijian Drua, joined Australia’s National Rugby Championship and turned up in Sigatoka for its first home game, there was a lile apprehension from the Fijian fans.
The week previous, the Drua had notched up their first ever win with a dominant and equally exciting display in Melbourne, so the apprehension was doused with a nice helping of curiosity.
Fiji rugby’s contribution to the Australian game should never be under estimated. The likes of I lie Tabua, LoteTuqiri and Radike Samo paved the way for the current crop of Fijian stars gracing the Wallabies' squad.
Marika Koroibete is the latest to wear the green and gold in anger, in a big couple of years for the boys from the island nation.Tevita Kuridrani, Henry Speight, Taqele Naiyaravoro, Samu Kerevi, Sefa Naivalu and Eto Nabuli have all had the honour of representing our country. Combine that with the three Fijian All Blacks, and the 30- odd players representing clubs in the top comps in Europe ... yet Fiji itself has reached theWorld Cup quarterfinals just twice.
For this reason, it’s only fiing that we give back to the Fijians, and help them grow into the rugby nation they should be.
On our first visit to Fiji, it was apparent just how rugby-mad this nation is. On that drive to Sigatoka, you see kids playing rugby with whatever they can get their hands on in every field you pass. Giant billboards serve as shrines to their Olympic Sevens heroes as you pass every village.The pride of their nation.
Our co-commentator and former Wallaby star Cameron Shepherd went to the home village of Peceli Nacebe. In the first couple of weeks of the competition, this kid was the talk of the town.There was word he was fielding countless phone calls with offers and interest. He has a step that makes good defenders look silly, and ball skills that showcase the instinctive nature of Fijian rugby.
Cameron had at least eight bowls of kava, then rode with his family on a two-hour trip to Lawaqa Park to watch their first home game. Unfortunately the star fly-half was struck down with a nasty ankle injury just three minutes in, but the side went on to completely dominate NSW Country and win comfortably.
Nacebe’s father tried to whisk him away back to his home to see their village doctor, but Drua management had to pull him out of the back of the truck to take him to a proper hospital. It’s a reminder of how much family means to them.The rugby family now needs to show that same love to the Pacific Island nations.
The 10,000 people in Suva’s National Stadium the next week against reigning NRC champs, the Perth Spirit, was a sign this side has won the hearts of the Fijians. And they pumped the champs.
World Rugby and the Australian Rugby Union should be applauded for giving them a chance to build themselves a meaningful XVs team that will go a long way to keeping the talent where it belongs, in Fiji.
The endgame for Australia won’t be in poaching players for the Wallabies. Rather, it will be in what they can teach us – the tough, uncompromising, but also beautifully instinctive play they are so capable of delivering.
It’s only fitting that we give back to the Fijians, and help them grow into the rugby nation they should be.
Peceli Nacebe's form for Fiji's NRC side has caught the eye.