Weekend Gold Coast Bulletin
When Samu Kerevi rang to tell his dad he made the Olympic rugby team, he was at the graveside of Kerevi’s late mother. It was a bittersweet moment, but Kerevi knows she would be proud, writes CHRISTY DORAN
Given up by his parents, forced to flee from coups in the Solomon Islands and Fiji, and landing in Australia as a refugee, this is the untold story of Samu Kerevi. In another life, Kerevi – the destructive Wallaby who will pull on the gold jersey again at the Tokyo Olympics – would have ended up in jail like several members of his father’s family.
“They had a really tough upbringing,” Kerevi says.
“Those street kids, it was really tough for them, and they didn’t go down the right path. They’ve all been to jail. One of my cousins is in jail now, and has been for 14 years, and I grew up with him.”
Were it not for his late mother Salaseini, who believed her son would be better off leaving with his grandparents and escaping the “rough” upbringing destined ahead, Kerevi could well have followed the path of his cousins and ended up in prison.
His mother’s love handed Kerevi a chance at a better life.
“For my mum to give up basically my whole childhood, I know that would be tough and she used to tell me how tough that was for her,” he says. “I guess because I was so young, Islanders, Fijians, you get to spend a lot of time with your grandparents and you grow up in a big family.
“My grandfather and grandmother – they’re not actually my grandparents, they’re my grandmother’s sister’s family – they raised me. In Australia they’d be a great uncle and aunt, but for us in Fiji, they are your grandparents.
“My great uncle, he was the first one to hold me. I don’t know where my dad was, but he named me and he’s the guy that raised me.”
When his grandfather was sent on assignment to the Solomon Islands, Kerevi went with him.
“I was so young, I don’t think I knew what was going on,” he says.
“I think I just thought we were going down to the beach. I was about six years old.
“We were there for a year before the coup started a year later, and we had to get evacuated from the Solomon Islands to Fiji, but there was a coup in Fiji, so we fled to Brisbane.
“It was a blessing in disguise that all that stuff happened because we ended up being in Brisbane and getting a refugee visa.”
Kerevi is one of the many Australian rugby stars largely lost to the game for financial reasons.
The 27-year-old, who played the last of his 33 Tests for the Wallabies in their World Cup quarter-final loss to England in 2019, joined Japanese Top League powerhouse Suntory after that tournament.
At the time, his decision to leave Australian rugby at the peak of his powers was bemoaned as another money-fuelled decision driven by his player agent Anthony Picone. Former
NRL star turned Wallabies sensation Marika Koroibete is the latest set to leave Australian rugby at season’s end.
Yet, as Kerevi explains, for Fijians and other Pasifika players, their time frame for earning money is a matter of life and death for family members back home, where a lot of their salaries go.
“It’s (sending money home) at the forefront of everything, those people, everyone helped us from Fiji to be here,” says Kerevi.
“There’s a thousand Marikas in Fiji waiting for the opportunity, and a guy like Marika, I’m pretty plastic compared to Marika.
“Marika, he’s a village boy, a real village boy and when you spend time with him he’s still a village boy in the way he carries himself.
“So any opportunity we do get, we’re so grateful, and we’ve got to make it count.
“It’s hard for Fijians after footy as well. Aussies, they get great opportunities after rugby through media or other jobs and corporate gigs, but people don’t really think about what’s next for Marika.
“They want to see him wear the gold jersey, but after that jersey, who will support him and his family and those back home? Are you going to be there to do that?
“He has that at the back of the mind.
“We want to play for our country. But at the end of the day it’s not going to last long term.”
Kerevi is not earning a cent by playing for Australia at the Olympics, but his presence – even if he is not playing big minutes – promises to be a game-changer for a squad short on big-match experience.
After being told by coach Tim Walsh he had been selected for the Games less than a month after joining the squad, Kerevi broke the news to his father, Nimilote, who was sitting by the grave of his mother, who died earlier in the year.
“I told my dad and he was sitting next to her grave and he called me and shed tears and how happy he was and how happy she would be,” Kerevi says.
“That’s the bittersweet thing for me. I don’t think it’s hit me yet.
“It’s moments like this that you want your parents there to witness it and say they’re proud of you, and to not get that from Mum is tough.
“It’s still pretty fresh and it sucks she’s not here, but the whole family got around me.”