Former Fiji Sevens coach Ben Ryan explains what debutant winger Alivereti Raka will bring to the France team
Why Alivereti Raka will be box office for France
This isn’t yet another tale of a bigger nation poaching a player from the Pacific Islands. It’s about opportunity and migration. Alivereti Raka is eligible for France and playing in the Rugby World Cup. He wasn’t born there and doesn’t have any parents or grandparents who might have connections. He is a ‘Naitasiri Turaga’ – a kid from the interior and mountainous highlands of Fiji. Waimala Secondary School is a long way in every respect from a Lyceé Francaise.
From there, Raka played for Nadroga province at age-group level, starting in their U16s and progressing up the ranks until he made his senior debut in Fiji’s own version of the County Championship, the Skipper Cup – playing the smaller Vatukoula province in October 2014.
Just one month later, he was in Clermont, joining one of the biggest rugby clubs in the world. Now, he is a French citizen, he is married to a Frenchwoman, he has a French passport and made his Test debut in France’s World Cup warm-up match against Scotland in Nice.
Until we have more a targeted plan on how to really help the island nations, this will always happen. Raka has made the choice to play for France over Fiji and no one should question that. He has a French wife, speaks French and has made a life for himself over there. Others, like Peceli Yato, have opted for Fiji and the two of them, from the same province in Viti Levu, run out together for les Jaunards at the Marcel Michelin.
We all make choices on where we choose to work and live based upon our circumstances and the offers available. Raka, who is from one of the poorest places on the planet, moved continents and cultures to make it to where he is today. Rugby has made a huge difference to him and countless others.
Remember, there are currently no opportunities to play professionally in Fiji or any Pacific Island. There are no professional leagues, which means no pro academies and limited pathways. Pacific Island teams get no slice of the crowd revenue when playing at a Tier One side. Even Fiji’s star sevens players won’t be getting paid more than £7,000 in wages.
Players come over to a new culture in France and have a chance to change their lives and those of their family. Raka has done just that. A 90kg+, 6ft winger who has all the evasive skills you would expect from a Fijian but souped-up and in glorious technicolour. He is a very fine footballer and will glide into international rugby.
So what does Raka bring on the field that will catapult him straight into Test rugby? Box office. His preference is to play on the left wing and that is simply because his MO is to clutch the ball in his left hand, ready to offload, which frees up his piston-like right arm for the ‘see you later’ fend. It’s a belter of a hand-off.
The third strand to his attacking game is his 1970s hip swerve. He has an uncanny ability to beat defenders that are in close proximity. For most players, the tackle is met and you are brought down, but this hip swivel, combined with his fend and balance, will get him past even the most able of defences.
He always tends to hit the ball at speed too – just what you want your winger to do. A catch at speed, a transfer to his left mitt and he’s off on his attacking forays. Just like his childhood up with the wild horses in the interior searching for new adventures, it’s the same on any 70m x 100m strip of grass. He’s more than a hard man to stop; he’s a pinballing force of nature.
He defends the high ball brilliantly and loves a cross-field kick to gather in and attack with. With age on his side – he’s just turned 26 – he has a couple of World Cups and Olympic Games in him at least. Sit back and enjoy the ride.
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This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Rugby World magazine.
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