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From Our Archives - Rugby Matters

The Blue Lagoon Rugby Sevens
Tim Pile
in Fiji
Success appeared to be the result of vociferous support from the chambermaids and an inspired performance from the cook.

The Blue lagoon Teams

Setting Off

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, they’re 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 everyone’s 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. They’re unlikely to be going anywhere in a hurry - unless they’ve got a ball under their arm.

© Tim Pile March 2002

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