First published in Rugby League World, Issue 381 (Jan 2013)
Of the five Pacific island nations competing at RLWC2013, Fiji offers the most fruitful production line of talented, homegrown players.
NRL scouts visit the islands regularly, player pathways exist, and almost every season Australian commentators have another bright, young Fijian tongue-twister to get their heads around.
Akuila Uate set RLWC2008 alight, and his 2012 equivalent has been Wests Tigers’ winger Marika Koroibete. The 20-year-old was spotted in Fiji in 2010, signed for the Tigers in 2011, and made his NRL debut this year after a season in the Toyota Cup. And he’s just one of many NRL-standard players in the islands, according to Fiji National Rugby League Chairman Peni Musunamasi.
“Marika’s quick success proves what raw talent we have back home,” Musunamasi tells Rugby League World as he watches Fiji’s under 20’s take on their Lebanese counterparts in Sydney. “We just need to develop their talent and change the mindset of players so that they want to try Rugby League, and not just rugby union. Marika was asked to go and play rugby union but he had set his mind on playing Rugby League and, looking at where he is now, he deserves it.”
Koroibete and his contemporaries offer a continuing source of optimism to Fiji officials that the side could repeat their RLWC2008 performance, when they reached the tournament’s semi-finals. The Bati have again been placed in a tough group and will face England on home soil at Hull, Ireland at Rochdale and Australia at St Helens, but Musunamasi says the draw offers no excuses.
“This is actually the third time we’ve been pooled with Australia at a World Cup, and I think we will forget about Australia and England and focus on our first game against Ireland. If we win that we are likely to reach the quarter finals, and we can use the games against Australia and England to prepare ourselves for whoever we are going to meet in the quarters.
“We would like to do well so we can prove it wasn’t a fluke to reach the semi-final in 2008. We need to either equal or better that.”
From their successful 2008 side, Fiji will likely enter RLWC2013 without Kangaroo converts Uate and Jarryd Hayne (although Uate hopes to re-join Fiji if he doesn’t figure in Australia’s World Cup plans).
In a huge boost for the Bati, however, both Petero Civoniceva and Lote Tuqiri (who were born in Fiji but spent their representative careers with Queensland and Australia) are expected to pledge allegiance to their country of birth for next year’s tournament. Tuqiri remains in the NRL with Wests Tigers while 36-year-old Civoniceva, who retired from first grade this year, will stay match fit in 2013 with Redcliffe Dolphins in the Queensland Cup.
Add Wes Naiqama (Panthers), Kevin Naiqama (Knights), Sisa Waqa (Storm), Koroibete (Tigers) and Ashton Sims (Cowboys) to the mix, and the Bati will again be among the favourites to challenge the ‘big three’ of Australia, New Zealand and England at RLWC2013.
Fiji coach Rick Stone (who is also assistant to Wayne Bennett at Newcastle Knights) watched his side defeat Italy ‘A’ 22-18 in Sydney in October, and used the opportunity to trial several Fiji-based players who were flown to Australia for the game.
“It was a bit scrappy but it was a good, tough contest, and for our native Fijians it was their first time in Australia, so they would have taken plenty out of it,” Stone explains. “It’s a bit different to the sort of footy and probably the level of organisation that they’re used to in Fiji, but I think they responded really well, and it’s a positive sign for the future.”
Stone has visited Fiji twice since joining the Bati set-up and is closely involved with Rugby League development in the islands. “I can see their game improving all the time,” he enthuses. “There is a good, strong domestic competition and it’s a progressively growing sport there. It’s behind rugby union but the organisation is moving in the right direction with plenty of teams and a lot of high schools playing the game over there.”
“There are a lot of young boys coming through in Fiji,” agrees captain Wes Naiqama, who travelled to the islands earlier this year for the ‘Battle of the Bati’ trial match. “Obviously there’s me and a few of the other guys who have been there before at previous World Cups, but there are plenty of young players coming through the under 20’s system who have got a lot of talent.”
Although the Bati’s last World Cup display captured public attention in Fiji, Musunamasi believes it needs to be backed up with another strong showing next year to raise the profile of Rugby League. “Even though we reached the semi-final in 2008, league is still a minor sport in Fiji,” he concedes. “I think it’s just the mind-set of Fijians – they always say that rugby union is the best sport.
“But we, the officials who put in our time volunteering, know that Rugby League is the best sport for Fijians who want running rugby. That’s the reason why most of us volunteers are giving our time to develop the game in Fiji. We just need support from our sponsors, from the government, and from the public, and Rugby League will be a major sport in the near future.”
While some RLWC2013 nations are yet to confirm their schedules for the next ten months, the Bati have mapped out a preparation and selection framework open to Fijians plying the 13-a-side trade across the world.
Stone explains: “In 2013 we’ll probably have a few camps, one in Sydney and a couple in Fiji, and then we’ll come together towards the end of the NRL season. There’ll be a big ‘Battle of the Bati’ tournament featuring an Australia-based team versus a Fiji-based team, and possibly that will incorporate a UK-based team and a New Zealand-based team as well. There are plenty of players putting their hand up to play for Fiji in 2013.”
By: Joanna Lester