Following Rugby World's recent trip to the Pacific Islands, we celebrate the importance of the game in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga – and highlight the running battles taking place off the pitch
A Sunday evening stroll along the beach in Fiji perfectly illustrates the Pacific Islands’ relationship with rugby. As the sun sets on the 2km stretch of sand between the Pearl and Uprising resorts in Pacific Harbour, on the south coast of Viti Levu, Rugby World passes a trio chucking a ball around in the sea, a group of guys in their late teens engaged in three-a-side touch, a father playing with his three boys, and a mother practising kicking with her son.
It’s a similar story on the 45-minute journey from the airport to Apia city centre in Samoa. Every few hundred metres there are kids big and small playing in groups big and small on patches of grass big and small. One toddler is even using a flip-flop in place of a ball.
There are myriad examples from our three weeks in the Pacific to demonstrate rugby’s importance. From neatly-presented rugby pitches taking centre stage in schools and villages, the posts at one on the Coral Coast made of bamboo, to the plethora of jerseys – as well as Super Rugby ones, we saw Ospreys and Exeter shirts. From the children at Lami Primary School giddy with excitement at the Tonga team visiting to the photograph hunters trailing the Fiji team around the Warwick hotel on World Selfie Day.
When describing what it means to play for Samoa, Jack Lam says: “It’s bigger than ourselves. We always say the jerseys we wear are not our jerseys, they’re the people’s jerseys.”
Some describe rugby as being almost like a religion on the islands, yet that is not to reduce the significance of their faith. To see players bedecked in red and white kneeling arm in arm in prayer after Tonga’s win over Fiji is no surprise while you notice how the Fijians come together to sing a hymn at the end of key sessions. The lotu – a time for prayer – is also noted in teams’ daily itineraries like a gym session or physio window.
Sinoti Sinoti talks of Samoa’s mantra of “selfless acts”, putting greater glory ahead of individual deeds, while Fiji flyer Josua Tuisova says: “I want to make sure I fulfil what God has given me.”
Having the privilege of spending time with all three teams, we also get to see the laid-back and playful nature of these squads. There’s the constant banter as Tonga play beach volleyball on a rest day (the packed lunch of a wrap, six sandwiches and two muffins is also quite an insight); family time for the Samoa players by the hotel pool after their RWC 2019 first-leg play-off win over Germany; the high-pitched laughter of Fiji players as centre Jale Vatubua is called out for asking reception staff for make-up to cover up a facial cut in an impromptu court-type session.
Watisoni Nasalo, who won three caps for Fiji in the Seventies, perfectly sums it up when saying: “When you’re happy doing something, you always do it well.”
Laughter and singing may be omnipresent off the pitch but there is no denying their talent on it. You’d be hard pressed to find a professional club that doesn’t have at least one player of Pacific Islands heritage on their books for they have skills that can’t be coached.
“I was always aware of the special talents Pacific players have,” says John McKee, who’s coached Fiji since 2014, “but I was still surprised when I came to live in Fiji and saw games at local level, schoolboy games, with really talented young players. Fiji has athletes who have a natural talent for playing rugby. For talent and athletic ability, they’re a nine out of ten. It’s the technical and tactical side that we’re working on.
“My experience with Fijian players is that they’re keen to listen to new ideas. It’s very refreshing. Other players I’ve worked with before were more fixed in their mindset and it was hard to bring in something different, but Fijian players are much more open.”
The diaspora of islanders means it is hard for selectors to keep track of all those eligible to represent their country. Peter Horne, in charge of World Rugby’s high-performance programmes, says: “Their greatest challenge could be their greatest success. They have talent everywhere; they just need to try to bring it together.”
If they could harness all the talent available, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga would not only be dangerous on the world stage but consistently competitive. There are several matters that need to be addressed first though…