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Fri 18 October

Fiji’s coming home!

Fiji’s coming home!

By Tim Steere

It could be argued that there’s one match in the group stages of the competition that mean more than any other.

This is a game that transcends rivalries; negates the importance of positions in the table and where points scored simply don’t matter.

Fiji versus Ireland doesn’t automatically stand out as being a landmark match, but it isn’t until you dig deeper that you understand its true importance.

The match is being played at the home of the Rochdale Hornets Rugby League Football Club, and it was at this club that Rugby League for Fijians was born in 1961.

Orisi Dawai and Joe Levula became the first two players to join Rochdale from Fiji, and with it they became Fiji’s first professional Rugby League players.

Another player who joined the Hornets in the 1960s was Mike Ratu Sr.

“Rochdale introduced Rugby League to us,” said Ratu.

“The British side were touring Australia in 1958. At the same time, the Fiji Rugby Union side was touring Australia. The manager of the Britain touring side was called Arthur Walker, and he was the chairman of Rochdale Hornets.

“The touring party went to watch one of the Fiji rugby union sides playing, and they saw the Fijian players running, and combined with their physical size, they were overwhelmed.”

Fiji was a purely rugby union nation, and League never had never previously got a look in. But it was Walker who saw the potential for Fijian players to switch codes.

“He was impressed with this wingman Joe Levula who was six foot four and 17 and a half stone playing on the wing. The way the Fijians ran and passed the ball with one hand to each other, they couldn’t believe what they were seeing.”

Walker believed these players could play Rugby League in England, and for his Rochdale Hornets side. But any opportunity to play abroad was problematic.

“There was a law where the Fijians belong to Fiji. Nobody was allowed to leave Fiji unless you were doing something like education, but whenever you finished you had to go back home.

“Our paramount chief passed away in the period 1959 to 1960, so it allowed the two players to live abroad.

“It opened the door for all the other Fijians to come over. There was a big send off when Dawai and Levula went, after that a few others followed.”

The British Government then went on to recruit 200 boys and 12 girls to come and join the British Army. This was how Ratu came to England, and after leaving the army he moved to Rochdale and joined the Hornets in 1965.

A Fijian community developed in Rochdale, with a Rochdale Fijian Association being founded in the 1970s. Membership was 2p each.

But as well as this community developing, the Fijians, who were coming across to England and playing for the Hornets until the 1970s, also showed they could play Rugby League to a very high standard.

However with bans threatened on Fijians switching from Union to League, it was another 31 years before a national Rugby League side was formed and played their first competitive game.

Fiji Bati entered the World Sevens tournament in Australia in 1992, where they won their first game, defeating Canberra. They later went on to win the plate in the tournament following an 18-14 win over Gold Coast.

The star performance of Noa Nadruku for Fiji saw him invited to train with Canberra by coach Tim Sheens and he went on to become leading try scorer in 1993 in the NRL. After just one tournament, the Bati’s stock was already beginning to rise.

1992 also saw Fiji compete in 13-a-side matches for the first time when they participated in the Pacific Cup. After defeats to Western Samoa, Niue and Tonga, the Bati ended the tournament with a bang, securing a 54-6 win over Cook Islands.

Just three years after the Bati’s first Rugby League international, a trip to the United Kingdom beckoned the Fijian side for a first ever foray into the Rugby League World Cup.

It was a baptism of fire after being drawn with England, Australia and South Africa.

Their first match against South Africa at Keighley’s Cougar Park saw them win 52-6 - a performance that made many people stand up and take notice.

Unfortunately England and Australia proved to be a step too far, as Fiji lost without scoring a point. Overall though, the tournament was a huge stride forward.

The Fijians’ second attempt at the Rugby League World Cup came in 2000, when once again they were drawn with Australia and England as well as Russia, who Fiji defeated to gain their only win.

The Bati then made it three Rugby League World Cup appearances in a row after qualifying for the 2008 competition.

And the nation impressed.

After previously failing to make it out of the group stages, they recorded a 42-6 win over France in their first match of the tournament. And despite a narrow 18-16 defeat to Scotland, Fiji reached the quarter finals for the first time on points difference.

A 30-14 victory over Ireland led to the biggest game in the nation’s history against the defending champions Australia in the last four.

A 52-0 loss was an unfair reflection of their performance and their contribution to the tournament. but a fourth place finish saw the Fijians gain their highest ever RLIF world ranking of fourth, and domestically, their league soared as a result.

12 teams now compete in the Vodafone Cup along with junior sides across the islands.

Fiji were granted automatic qualification for RLWC2013 to make it a fourth Rugby League World Cup in a row, and amazingly they have been drawn in a group containing England and Australia, as well as Ireland.

Fiji are now ranked seventh in the world and have a host of players plying their trade in Australian and English leagues.

These include the 37-year-old veteran and captain Petero Civoniceva, who plays in the Queensland Cup, Wes Naiqama, who plays for Penrith Panthers, and Daryl Millard of the Catalan Dragons.

And the inclusion of these players, coupled with the progress made in the tournament five years ago, is enough to convince Ratu Sr that the Bati are capable of a shock or two.

“There are lots of leagues in schools now in Fiji, a lot of Australian clubs are taking Fijians to play in their academies,” says Ratu.

“The schools competition is getting bigger. I don’t think we’re as big as rugby union yet, but the people are enjoying what they see in the schools competitions, which is the root of our game.

“We have six or seven who play in the top grade in Australia so we have players who have learnt a lot.

“They’ve got a physicality about them now and it’ll be a totally different team. They’re all experienced in the NRL in Australia and if they’re all bonding well together then hopefully they will do well.

But this year’s Rugby League World Cup campaign is about more than just results for Fiji.

It is the culmination of months of campaigning to bring a Fiji match to Rochdale for RLWC2013, and celebrate more than 50 years since those pioneers of Dawai and Levula moved to the town and helped to start a community that is still strong.

“It was emotional when we won the bid, now with the help of the council and the RLWC2013 organisers, we’re having a big reception for them,” says Ratu.

“I have a lot of phone calls from the Fijian army boys and Fijians in London. The town will be full of Fijians and they’ll be cheering for Fiji. There will be a lot of singing, and we’ll be celebrating whatever happens.

“To have the Fiji Bati in our town, I can’t describe it.”

The match against Ireland on 28th October at Rochdale’s Spotland ground, will be a chance to celebrate and honour those Fijians who helped to start a Rugby League revolution 50 years ago for their country in a small town in Lancashire, England.

And most of all, for Fijians everywhere, it’s an opportunity to say thank you to Arthur Walker, and to Rochdale for introducing them to a game that is now a part of the nation’s culture.

Fiji will also face Australia at Langtree Park on November 2 and England at the KC Stadium on November 9.

To make sure you'll #bethere buy now at www.rlwc2013.com/tickets or call our 24-hour Ticket Hotline on 0844 847 2013.

Fiji’s coming home! Fiji v Ireland doesn’t stand out as being a landmark match, but it's not until you dig deeper that you understand its true importance.

 

Results

Rugby League World Cup
Sat 23 NovNew Zealand 20-18 England
Sun 17 NovSamoa 4-22 Fiji
Sat 16 NovEngland 34-6 France
Fri 15 NovNew Zealand 40-4 Scotland
Mon 11 NovFrance 6-22 Samoa
Sun 10 NovWales 24-28 Cook Islands
Sat 09 NovEngland 34-12 Fiji
Fri 08 NovNew Zealand 56-10 Papua New Guinea
Thu 07 NovScotland 22-8 USA
Tue 05 NovTonga 22-16 Cook Islands

more results