The hard-hitting Pau centre talks Fiji, family and the future
Get to know Fiji’s Jale Vatubua
He may not be the most recognisable name in the Fiji team but with his powerful work in defence and strong runs, Jale Vatubua is a central figure for the islanders. Here’s his story…
I’m the youngest of eight. We’re split down the middle – four boys and four girls. I lost my dad when I was young, about nine, and my brother, William, mentored me. He’s ten years older and was my rugby coach, my athletics coach – I threw javelin and shot put – and my music teacher. He is now a professional singer in Australia.
It’s in the blood of every young boy in Fiji to play rugby. You turn on the TV and sevens is on every day, or there’s a 15s game. I first played when I was five years old at primary school. My two main heroes were Stephen Larkham and Brian O’Driscoll. I’d imitate Larkham – I’d wear headgear and have my elbow strapped!
When I was 17 I moved to New Zealand on a scholarship. I was spotted playing ten in the national U19s quarter-finals and I kicked a 57m goal. There had been offers every year from when I was about 14 to go to South Africa, but my mum wouldn’t let me. I was her baby and she didn’t want to send me to the other side of the world.
This time I said she couldn’t hold onto me forever and this was my chance of repaying everything she’d done for me. I’d seen what she went through being a single mum and raising eight children.
It was a massive culture shock. Even getting used to the weather in New Zealand. I went to St Peter’s School in Cambridge, near Hamilton, and it was co-ed, whereas I’d always been to boys’ schools. So it was an eye-opener.
In New Zealand I moved to centre. They thought I was too lanky at that time to be a ten but if I put on a few kg I’d make a good 12. When I was in Year 13, I played for Waikato U20. Having to train and do my schoolwork was hard, but I wouldn’t have changed it for anything. I then moved to Sydney to play for the Southern Districts Rebels in the Shute Shield.
Pau signed me off the back of YouTube clips from Southern Districts’ Grand Final! They messaged me, asked if I wanted to play for them and I was there in five days for the 2012-13 season.
It was an opportunity to do what I love and look after my mum back in Fiji. It was hard at first, not knowing the language, and after a couple of years we changed coach. Simon Mannix came up to me and some Kiwi boys and said, “You’ve been here years and don’t speak a word of French. Pull your socks up or you’re gone.” That flicked the switch and I got the language in a few months.
The main strength of my game is bringing energy. Both in defence and attack. I try to make my actions speak louder than words, even though I talk a lot on the field! I want to do stuff to help the team and get everyone going – a huge hit or a line break. I try to motivate with my actions.
It shocks me that people have said I’m the Fijian Sonny Bill Williams. He’s a guy I’ve watched on TV, a superstar. I don’t think I play like that, but if people do it’s great. I hope it doesn’t offend him!
Playing for Fiji means the world. As a little kid growing up, I was always watching Fiji reps out in the white jersey and wishing one day I could wear it. To have the chance to do it is a privilege and means a lot to me and my family.
I call Leone Nakarawa the Human Octopus! He hates it. But he can spark everything and he plays like he has eight hands.
My son is my biggest fan. Jale Junior is two and all he talks about is his dad and rugby. My partner, Arianna, said that when they were packing to come to Fiji this summer, the first thing he put in his carry-on luggage was his kicking tee! I have a ten-month-old daughter, Valentina, as well. I love spending time with the little ones.
My goal every day is to put a smile on someone else’s face. I like socialising and meeting new people. In downtime, I’ll also play cards, play the guitar, maybe sing.
All my tattoos have different meanings. For my religion, where I come from, my siblings, my love for nature and the sea. I used to be scared of water but got my scuba-diving licence in New Zealand. I love to see what is under the water.
This article originally appeared in the October issue of Rugby World magazine.
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