Rugby League World editor Gareth Walker relishes the prospect of tonight’s Fiji versus Ireland game at Spotland.
Of all the World Cup games that will take place over the next five weeks, few will hold the same cultural local significance as tonight’s Fiji and Ireland game in Rochdale. From the moment that the tournament was confirmed as being staged in this country, Rochdale Hornets and the town’s local authorities were desperate to host a match involving the Fijians. The reason has been well documented ever since, and encouragingly has received extensive national and regional coverage in recent weeks. Rochdale’s link with Fiji dates back to 1961 with the arrival of giant duo Joe Levula and Orsi Dawai, after the Hornets Chairman Arthur Walker had seen them playing rugby union while on the 1958 Great Britain tour to Australia. The pair were the first of a host of Fijian arrivals in the town during the 1960s and 70s, and many of them stayed, ensuring that there are four generations of some Fijian families in Rochdale. Two of those early arrivals, Voate Drui and Mike Ratu, still live in the town and have conducted a host of media appearances in recent weeks, lovingly recounting the days when they arrived in 1960s Rochdale from the South Pacific. “It was so different from Fiji and our lives,” Drui, now 81, told BBC Radio Manchester last week. “We had all this lovely thick snow on the ground – you had to be careful not to slip. It was a wonderful difference from Fiji but we were so happy.” Drui arrived shortly after the initial two alongside Liatia Ravouvou, and there is a famous picture of all four being interviewed in the snow by the BBC’s Eddie Waring in 1963. Drui has actually described the chance to move to Rochdale as being “like someone coming up to you and giving you a stick of gold” in one of his media interviews. Thousands turned up to see their debuts at the old Athletic Grounds, and they were welcomed by the local community from the moment they landed. They would often be seen in local pubs with a guitar, singing traditional Fijian songs. Ratu’s grandson, also called Mike and a former Leeds, Hull KR and Halifax centre, was in the Rochdale squad last season although injury restricted his impact, and another family member, Emon, was a popular backrower with Hornets during the 1990s. Drui and Ratu’s passion for the town has shone through in last week’s media appearances, and they will help ensure a significant Fijian presence at Spotland tonight. There’s every chance they might treat supporters to the kind of communal hymn singing that the Fijian team provided both after their World Cup warm-up game against Hornets last weekend, and at a civic reception at Rochdale Town Hall a few days later. Both genuinely moving recitals can be seen on YouTube. To celebrate tonight’s match the town’s Flying Horse Hotel will be serving a traditional Fijian menu on the day of the game in addition to some Irish specialities And the extensive build-up that the game has received is set to result in a first capacity crowd at Spotland for a Rugby League game since Rochdale Hornets beat Oldham on Boxing Day way back in 1989. Drui and Ratu will be among them, watching the stars of today – the likes of Petero Civoniceva and Akuila Uate – provide a link to their own remarkable stories from the past. It’s nights like tonight that will shape our memories of this year’s World Cup, and hopefully leave a lasting legacy for the towns in which they take place.
First published in League Express, Mon 28th Oct 2013