Global ambitions fuel Fiji’s ‘rugby factory’


NAMATAKULA, Fiji, July 25 (Reuters) – The jagged grounds of Ratu Filise Rugby Club on Fiji’s Coral Coast may seem like an unlikely springboard to international stardom, but many of the game’s luminaries have left their mark on the uneven grass and ran in tries under his angled goal posts.

Ratu Filise’s first team trains on the pitch as the sun sets on a sweaty afternoon, young men dreaming of following players like Tevita Kuridrani and Nemani Nadolo, who left quiet village life to perform on the biggest stages in the world.

“Our elders were very talented players and the new generation continues that,” head coach Etika Tovilevu told Reuters.

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“Rugby is in our genes.”

Known in Fiji as “the rugby factory”, the surrounding village of Namatakula has a long history of exporting talent and locals are proud to point out the family homes of the players who made it.

Double code international Lote Tuqiri, capped 67 times for the Wallabies, runs a large house lined with coconut trees on the outskirts of town.

Familiar names like Tuqiri and former Wallabies center Kuridrani, who now plays in France, are just the tip of the iceberg.

Dozens of other District players are carving out professional careers in rugby league and lower-level rugby union around the world before returning home with capital to start families and businesses.

The talent drain has long been bittersweet for Fiji.

Watching his favorite sons thrive overseas is a source of both pride and regret, as the country lacks the resources to play them at home.

However, departures to overseas shores could slow as Fijian Drua develops in Super Rugby.

Fiji’s first professional team in provincial competition, Drua have won just two games in their debut season this year but have competed against established sides from New Zealand and Australia.

Drua’s home games in the capital Suva and the scorching sugar cane town of Lautoka drew exceptional crowds.

Trade would come to a virtual halt in villages across the island nation as people crowded around TVs with the satellite feed to watch their matches.

The players were celebrated like celebrities on their tour of Fiji, having plied their trade in obscurity for the local provinces.

He made newcomers to Namatakula earn “lunch money” – or nothing – to play rugby sit down and take notice.

“That’s their main focus now,” said Tovilevu, a former Championship-winning fly-half for Fiji’s central province Nadroga-Navosa.

“The way they saw them play on TV and what they won and all those things really motivated the boys to try and make the team one day.”


The fact that the best local players are going up against the best from Australia and New Zealand in Super Rugby has also raised hopes for the national team ahead of next year’s World Cup in France .

Samoan rugby has already benefited from the creation of Moana Pasifika, who joined Drua as one of two Super Rugby expansion teams this season.

More than a dozen players from the New Zealand-based Moana team took part in Samoa’s recent Pacific Nations Cup victory in Fiji.

Drua’s dividend has yet to be passed on to the Flying Fijians, who finished a disappointing third in the four-nation tournament.

But Tovilevu says the national team could benefit as more talented players stay home to bid for a Drua contract rather than go abroad.

A World Rugby rule change that allows players to change nationality after a three-year waiting period could also encourage more experienced Fijian internationals to return home after representing other countries.

“Players always want to go abroad to get a contract,” Ratu Filise captain and loose striker Joe Yaya told Reuters.

“But the goal for most is that one day we have to wear the white shirt for Fiji.”

Ratu Filise’s training ground also serves as the yard for the local primary school, so the club always has a good number of juniors.

Successful Ratu alumni regularly return from Australia and have adopted homes in Europe, bringing new football boots and other gear as gifts.

They also bring contacts and relationships with professional clubs abroad and are happy to share them.

“It’s like that here,” Tovilevu said.

“They go away but always come back with something to give.”

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Reporting by Ian Ransom in Namatakula, Fiji; Editing by Peter Rutherford

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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