A century of Fijian rugby brilliance
November 28, 2013
The Fijian National Rugby Union team in action at Twickenham against the England Under-25 side © PA Photos
A very warm, if slightly belated, 100th birthday best wishes to the Fijian Rugby Union, whose centenary celebrations find a London stage this Saturday with a match against the Barbarians at Twickenham.
Ever since their players rescued the perennially precarious finances of the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) with their hugely popular tours in the 1950s, Fiji have been noted for bringing something vividly different to the game. Those teams took difference to the extent of being almost entirely teetotal and making a huge impression on hotel chambermaids - but not for the usual reasons that rugby teams are wont to make themselves memorable to female hotel staff. The Fijians insisted on cleaning and tidying their own rooms.
It wasn't the first time hotels had played a part in Fijian rugby history. A grateful ARU Treasurer doubtless raised a retrospective glass to the memory of Paddy Sheehan, a plumber and former Otago forward who had been the decisive figure in the creation of the Fijian union. Sheehan was a visitor rather than a resident in 1913 Fiji, there because he was working on the construction of the Grand Pacific Hotel in the Fijian capital, Suva.
Sheehan organised a club, named Pacific after the hotel, helped inspire the foundation of two more, was elected chair when the union was formed and prevailed upon the Governor, Sir Ernest Sweet-Escott, to present a trophy for competition between the teams. He is recorded as scoring two tries in 'one of the fastest and most exciting games' in the first season of competition, against the Service club.
In December 1913 he led a Fiji select against the All Black team on its way home from an all-conquering tour of California. As last month's Rewind recorded, their succession of resounding victories had helped destroy enthusiasm for the game on the west coast of the United States. The Fiji team was defeated by 67 points to three - a try scored by Sheehan - but local reaction was very different.
That Fijian team, and all of the union's founding clubs, were formed by Europeans. So perhaps Sheehan's most important contribution to the island game was not the foundation of the union, but the part he played in introducing rugby to the native population - superintending the first matches from the sidelines, while a referee who lacked his rugby expertise but spoke the local language took charge in the middle.
Fiji skipper Sela Toga arrives at Heathrow in 1970 © Getty Images
Within a year 'native clubs' were competing and in 1915 the Fiji Native Union was formed, affiliating to the Fijian union. The game was to remain effectively segregated for some time and it was the Native Union which launched the Fijian national team in 1924.
En route for a tour of Tonga, it played its first international match against Samoa in Apia on 18th August 1924. The kick-off time was 7 am, to allow the Samoans to get to work afterwards, there was a small tree on the halfway line and both teams played in bare feet.
Wearing All Black, the visitors controlled what was reported as 'the cleanest and finest exhibition of football in Samoa' and won 6-0 with tries from Viliame Devo and Savenaca Tamanibeka, who was recorded as crossing 'with three opponents hanging on to him'. One of the Fijians, Atunaisa Laqueretabua, was to represent his country until 1938.
While Twickenham has the unquestionable advantages for the current generation of more conventionally-shod Fijian players of being available and guaranteeing a decent playing surface - criteria on which the Millennium Stadium scores none of out two - it might perhaps have been more historically appropriate had the Fijian centenary match been played in Wales.
This isn't just because of Fiji's memorable and richly-deserved defeat of Wales at Nantes in the 2007 World Cup. Wales was also where the Fijians made their first impact in Europe, a little under 50 years ago.
It was on a tour which the International Rugby Board, showing the imagination and empathy for developing rugby nations which has done so much to impede the game's progress, had tried to prohibit, but was rescued when the French Federation also agreed to host the islanders for a series of games.
The first committee of the Fiji Rugby Football Union, photographed on the occasion of the presentation of the Escott Shield in 1913. Seated directly behind the shield is PJ " Paddy" Sheehan, beside him in the other dark suit is then Governor, Sir Ernest Bickham Sweet-Escott © Fiji Rugby Union
Fiji pitched up in South Wales in the autumn of 1964 and, like their predecessors in Australia a decade or so earlier, proved themselves a huge attraction. Around 100,000 fans watched their five matches, culminating in an Arms Park clash for which the IRB refused Wales permission to award caps.
Dai Smith and Gareth Williams, teenage fans when the Fijians visited, recalled them vividly when they wrote the Welsh Rugby Union's incomparable official history Fields of Praise: "The Fijians were bright, they were exuberant and they were entertaining. Above all they ran."
They did so to spectacular effect when they met a Welsh XV at the Arms Park. They lost a man within 10 minutes, a grievous blow in the age before injury replacements were allowed. At one point they trailed 28-9 to a Wales team which, while not at full strength, included such luminaries as Dewi Bebb, Dai Watkins, Alun Pask and Brian Price among 10 players who would later play some part in Wales' Triple Crown later the same season plus teenage centre Maurice Richards, getting a first taste of representative honours.
The depleted tourists should have been exhausted in the closing stages. Instead they offered a foretaste of the explosion of scoring they would produce at Nantes more than 40 years later - not to mention the ability to play brilliantly when shorthanded which gave South Africa the most uncomfortable moments of their Cup-winning campaign of 2007 - with three tries in the final 13 minutes, reducing the final margin to 28-22. Prop Sevaro Walisoliso completed a hat-trick and, reckoned veteran Welsh journalist JBG Thomas 'had play continued a further five minutes, they might have won'. Having budgeted for a loss, the WRU made a tidy profit.
So what next for Fijian rugby, as it enters its second century ? Is it too much to hope that they might finally get to host the All Blacks in a test, a century on from the visit by the 1913 team?
The Maoris have been frequent visitors, there were four trips by teams termed a 'New Zealand Xv' between 1968 and 1984 and this year's centenary celebrations included a match against a 'Classic All Blacks' team led by Justin Marshall. It now more than 25 years since George Simpkins, a New Zealand coach, was asked at the press conference after Fiji had scared France witless in the 1987 World Cup quarter-final at Eden Park. "Come and play us" was his answer - an invitation his own country, in spite of its historic and cultural proximity to Fiji , has yet to take up.
A happier thought is that Fiji should be a major beneficiary of the introduction of Rugby Sevens at the 2016 Olympics. Fiji has never claimed an Olympic medal, but that is one wait it might reasonably hope to end at Rio.
What odds of a Fijian triumph in the Olympics? © Getty Images
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Tom Hamilton runs the rule over just where the six countries stand ahead of the global gathering in September