NZ Rugby World
LA MANUIA OULUA MALAGA
Journey Well My Brothers
It has been a sad time for rugby fans as we’ve farewelled two incredible players, Va’aiga Tuigamala and Joeli Vidiri. For those of us lucky enough to have played alongside them, it has been extra hard as we say goodbye.
I am very happy I played with Inga more often than I played against him. You would think you had him covered, but all it took was a swing of those hips, that quick step and you’d be left in his wake. I remember playing for Suburbs against Inga’s beloved Ponsonby and being tasked with marking him. It ended with me on my backside, watching him speed away and score – all with that trademark smile.
One of the last crusades Inga took on was to do with health. He was passionate about his community and knew that to influence and turn around some of the negative statistics for our Pacific people, he had to lead and be the example. When he really cared about something, he would go after it with such zeal and tenacity. Inga joined the second season of MatchFit, a television show where former All Blacks changed from obesity to normality (or close to it). Inga thrived, he changed his diet, a group of us met for regular long bike rides, and really turned his health around and inspired the MatchFit boys and many others to do the same.
Inga was fiercely proud of his culture and heritage, and to have played for both New Zealand and Samoa, performing the Haka and Siva Tau with the same fearsome commitment that came from his heart.
I first saw Joeli playing Sevens. It struck me that here was this youngster from the highlands of Fiji who had made his way to the top in New Zealand rugby. His talent was evident, and when the Blues were formed in 1996, we really got to see the pace, strength and class of Joeli. He scored two tries in our second Super Rugby game against the Brumbies, showcasing his power and speed, and he never looked back.
Two on-field moments stick out most clearly for me. The first was a game against Natal in Durban in 1996 where Joeli was alone on defence, 30m out from our line. James Small ended up with the ball and had a head start, it looked like nothing could stop him as he charged downfield. But from nowhere came this big hand, pushing Small over the sideline. I’ll always remember how the crowd fell silent; it was only Joeli’s fellow Blues players who were cheering! He had even impressed Joost van der Westhuizen, who came into our dressing shed after the game in disbelief – “How fast is that Vidiri?!”
The second unforgettable Joeli moment was when our Blues team were playing pre-season games in the Northern Hemisphere in 1997, and French club champions CA Brive suggested a Northern Hemisphere v Southern Hemisphere champions match. There was a lot of boasting about their wingers, who each were 10-second 100m runners. We had the ball 30m from our own tryline with Joeli on the blindside, Carlos Spencer called him in, popped the ball and Joeli took flight. Those fast French wingers couldn’t catch him, all they saw was his huge smile as he touched down to score. We won that game 47-11, and the Brive crowd walked away knowing who Joeli Vidiri was.
Off the field, “Joey” was a typical Fijian, quiet and shy, but when you really engaged with him, he was a joy and delight, with a great sense of humour and cheekiness. He was a loyal friend and teammate, the type of person who would do anything for you.
He was in his element when he was playing with flair, and we knew that the best thing for the team and Joeli was to get the ball in his hands early to get a feel for the game. Joeli in full flight was incredible. It really was a loss to rugby when his health required him to retire early. We can only imagine what would’ve been possible if he had been able to have a long career at 100% health – it would’ve been something special.
Both Inga and Joeli were men of faith, Inga during his rugby life and Joeli following his career. Their Pacific heritage was also a massive source of pride. It was not lost on them that they were born in the Islands, and had grown up to live their dream of playing rugby for the greatest team in the world. They had shown that there was a sporting path for our Pasifika peoples. You only need to look at the global game to see how important that visibility and legacy has been to modern rugby.
I have been blessed to have known these men, men of talent and skill, men of faith, men who loved people and especially men who loved their families. La manuia oulua malaga – journey well my brothers.