The Blue Lagoon Rugby Sevens
appeared to be the result of vociferous support from the chambermaids
and an inspired performance from the cook.
The Blue lagoon Teams
What does it take to make the grade as an international rugby player for
Fiji? Tim Pile goes back to grass roots and grass huts to find out how
they all get started.
Nestling against the International Dateline, the rugby mad islands of
Fiji are among the first on the planet to welcome each new day. Events
unfold at a leisurely pace in these parts. Locals reason that since the
archipelago gets a few hours head start each morning, theyre
happy to give the rest of the world a chance to catch up. No one here
confuses datelines with deadlines.
If life in the larger Fijian towns could be described as languid, eighty
kilometers away in the remote Yasawa chain things often come to a complete
standstill. Things were about to change though as ambitious plans were
afoot to hold a rugby sevens competition in this isolated outpost. Eight
teams, representing tiny islands facing each other across a great turquoise
swimming pool of a lagoon were getting ready for a showdown. The island
of Yaqeta (Yangatta) was chosen to play host presumably because it had
the flattest patch of grass. Any similarities with big international events
would surely be coincidental.
It soon became evident on the morning of the big day that this wasn't
going to be any ordinary tournament. In a land of so few watches the chances
of anyone arriving in time for the one o' clock opening ceremony was always
likely to be slim. The boys from Nacula, the biggest island in the group,
had gathered on a beach, psyched themselves up and were all ready to set
off across the shallow waters. Unfortunately the boat they intended to
use had been borrowed by a group of tourists for a diving trip. No one
appeared too worried though. Any concerns that my adopted team might not
make it were alleviated by the fact that the others were unlikely to be
in too much of a hurry either.
I'm probably the only Englishman on the Christmas card list of a Fijian
village chief. I taught English in Nacula Village for a few months in
1990 so deciding who to cheer for posed me few problems. An impressive
new church has been built since my last visit but otherwise things are
much as they were. Palm frond and grass are still the building materials
most readily utilised.
Tourism is gaining a tentative foothold here; low key, sustainable, at
least for the time being. Combine the tropical landscapes of Hawaii, the
beaches of the Maldives and the smiles of the Thais and you end up with
a corny composite that doesn't begin to do justice to the area and its
people. True, some of the more worldly islanders have experienced electricity
and telephones during trips to the towns on the mainland but life for
most villagers remains blissfully simple. Organising the inaugural Yasawas
Rugby Sevens Tournament would be a formidable task.
Richard Evanson, American owner of the exclusive Turtle Island Resort
was ready for the challenge. Answering the call of the Fiji Rugby Union
for sponsors of the sport at grassroots level he stumped up the cash to
provide kit, fuel for the team boats, refreshments and prize money. Dignitaries
were flown in by seaplane.
Eventually the divers returned and we set off although at a speed that
made arriving in time for the closing ceremony a realistic target. Fortunately
Richard was on hand zipping back and forth across the turquoise waters
in his speedboat mopping up stragglers to ensure that everyone got to
the church on time. We waded ashore and found ourselves on the picturesque
Yaqeta Island. The boys seemed to know their way around and headed straight
for the pitch. To reach it we had to walk through the main village. Traditional
grass huts here are gradually being replaced by more functional brick
and corrugated iron structures. Less easy on the eye, far more likely
to withstand cyclones. Lots of bulas were exchanged. Bula!
is to Fijians what aloha is to Hawaiians - a ubiquitous multi-purpose
greeting that you'll employ dozens of times a day. These welcomes were
especially genuine; many of the islanders are related.
We reached the school field and set up camp under a huge breadfruit tree.
Inevitably palm trees framed the pitch with a gorgeous beach behind the
posts at one end. New kits were distributed and the players began tearing
the cellophane off the smart green and yellow strip like children receiving
exactly what they had asked Santa for. Sadly though the wrapping was discarded
thoughtlessly and was promptly blown onto the beach. Most villagers continue
to dispose of rubbish as they have always done, as if it were biodegradable.
Modern plastic packaging is presenting a relatively new threat to the
already delicate environment. It might have been wiser to wrap the clothing
in banana leaves.
Around the field the other teams were emerging from the bushes looking
like models from the pages of a sports clothing catalogue. We were almost
ready to begin proceedings when rumours began concerning the whereabouts
of the Navotua squad. Someone confirmed that they had been over to Turtle
Island the previous evening to collect their fuel allocation so that wasn't
the problem. Cynics suggested they hadn't seen so much diesel for a long
time and had probably used it to go fishing instead. To everyones
relief they emerged already changed just in time for the welcoming speech
from the village chief.
Senivalati Laulau, veteran of half a dozen appearances in the Hong Kong
Sevens, spoke next in his capacity as official guest and more importantly
from the player's point of view as talent spotter. Richard Evanson thanked
the organising committee and in particular the school for the use of their
field and for offering to suspend classes for half the day. Judging by
the whoops and cheers from the kids it appeared that theirs was a sacrifice
easily made in the circumstances. Finally the preacher offered a prayer
(to the god of broken bones perhaps) and the teams peeled away to their
respective corners and began their stretching exercises. These were closely
monitored by female spectators who were combining a chance to catch up
on village gossip with some talent spotting of their own.
The village elders settled down to some serious kava drinking. Similar
in appearance (and taste) to second hand bath water, communal supping
of the dissolved root of a plant from the pepper family is an integral
part of life across the archipelago. Its sedative qualities would at least
ensure that defeat could be dealt with philosophically.
The millionaire benefactor ceremonially kicked off the first game, betraying
the fact that he obviously hailed from a non-rugby playing country. Then
the action began in earnest. Nacula were facing Vuaki. The villages are
three minutes apart by speedboat, somewhat longer by more traditional
craft. Many opponents were cousins and there was even an uncle up against
his nephew. No love was lost in the early skirmishes. Cannibalism, curtailed
in Fiji over a century ago appeared to be making a comeback in the depths
of the scrum. The game settled down though into the fluid running and
passing exhibition that is the hallmark of the formidable national side.
The overseas contingent on the touchline winced as clattering challenges
punctuated but remarkably no one stayed down for long. We tourists had
been humiliated the previous evening during a supposedly gentle game of
touch rugby on the beach. Unfortunately our opponents had the limbs of
young trees and we only rallied during a round or two of touch beer bottles
later in the evening. When the dust had settled Nacula were victors by
eleven points to three. A solid start.
There are no villages on Mr Evanson's luxurious Turtle Island. The resort
staff have been assembled from a sprinkling of neighbouring Yasawa islands
into a kind of hospitality trade dream team. The rugby players had evidently
been selected on a similar basis. To the delight of their patron they
were swiftly into their stride. Their hapless opponents Navotua were soon
wishing they had gone fishing after all. Whispers of bribery flourished;
perhaps the Turtles would fail a post-match random kava test? Success
appeared to be the result of vociferous support from the chambermaids
and an inspired performance from the cook. Hopefully he'd left something
in the fridge for the pampered guests to heat up while he was away. Navotua's
kicking was poor but that was simply because they didn't have enough boots
to go around.
The afternoon wore on. Inexplicably games continued to run on schedule.
Mercifully there were no injuries, which was just as well since the nurse's
station consisted only of a desk with a cupful of Panadol. A few tourists
looked like they could have used a visit to a burns clinic though. My
Nacula lads huffed and puffed but it wasn't to be their day. Coaching
methods would need to be reviewed; a rugby ball instead of an old coconut
was surely the first step. The final pitched Yaqeta against the indomitable
Turtles who disappointed the home faithful with a resounding display.
Then it was time to go home.
A flotilla of craft was employed to ferry players, officials and supporters
back to their respective islands. The return journey to Nacula was as
enjoyable as the rest of the day. At no point during the tranquil chug
across the lagoon did I lose sight of the seabed. Once or twice though
I feared we would run aground on the multicoloured coral which often seemed
to be inches beneath us. The sun was setting to our left but I'll spare
you the cliches.
There are to be five more contests in the series with the last encounter
planned for later this year. The overall winners take the prize money,
represent the Yasawa Region on the main island and may get to tour overseas.
If you find yourself over this way go along and cheer with the chambermaids.
If you ever make it to a big international Sevens tournament, take a moment
to go and say bula to the boys from Fiji. Theyre unlikely to be
going anywhere in a hurry - unless theyve got a ball under their
© Tim Pile March
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