Scotty Stevenson: So, you think Kiwis are rugby fanatics

The Fiji team perform the Cibi prior to kickoff during the IRB 2011 Rugby World Cup. Photo / Gettyimages
The Fiji team perform the Cibi prior to kickoff during the IRB 2011 Rugby World Cup. Photo / Gettyimages

It didn't take long. The first Fijian to ask me about Friday night's Super Rugby match in Suva was the Customs officer who stamped my passport at Nadi Airport. I had been in the country for all of two minutes.

Now, after two days, I have talked little else with locals. To say rugby is a serious business in Fiji is an understatement; it's an obsession.

The drive from Nadi to Suva takes about three to four hours, depending on the traffic, the horses, the children who race you on foot as you pass through the the villages, and how many times you feel like stopping along the way, just to take in the views along the Coral Coast. The national speed limit is 80km/h, and what's the rush, anyway? The slower you go the more you enjoy the scenery, and the more you notice the fields and the posts and kids playing footy.

You pass through Sigatoka, with its big sign on the roundabout proclaiming it to be "Rugby Town" a grand proclamation indeed in a nation in which every single village prides itself on its team.

Still this is home to the famous Nadroga side, and there would be few in Fiji who would argue that Nadroga does not command a special place in the folklore of Fijian rugby.

Keep driving, along the road that licks the edge of the island, past the resort walls festooned in Bougainvillea, and turn inland, where among the green hills you find the villagers setting up their stalls and their roadside cooking fires. There you watch the next generation of Fijian stars playing pick up games of thirty on thirty, laughing and shouting at every dropped ball or intercept play. There you hear the sound of Fiji rugby, and feel its soul.

You could see that soul personified by the kids in action on the scrubby field of Nuku District School, beside the Nausori Airport, yesterday afternoon. It was rugby practice night, as it seems to be every night, but these kids were desperate to finish training so they could march en masse to the airport to catch a glimpse of the Chiefs. On Saturday, they will start eight weeks of Milo Kaji tournament play on Ratu Cakobau Park, each of them vying to make the district team for the national meet.

Fiji winger Nemani Nadolo in action against England during the opening match, of Pool A match between Fiji and England, at the Rugby World Cup 2015. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Fiji winger Nemani Nadolo in action against England during the opening match, of Pool A match between Fiji and England, at the Rugby World Cup 2015. Photo / Brett Phibbs

The Milo Kaji tournament is the cradle of Fijian rugby. It is where these kids come of age, where they get their chance to represent their district on the national stage for the first time. It is where former Nuku District School pupil Lance Corporal Semesa Rokoduguni first made his name. In 2014, he played his debut test for England against the All Blacks.

Already waiting at the airport yesterday afternoon were the kids from Lelean High School, alma mater of All Blacks and Chiefs centre Seta Tamanivalu, and New Zealand Sevens legend Tomasi Cama. They all held Chiefs flags and beamed big smiles, and no doubt harboured big ambitions about playing professional rugby like their heroes, who landed at Nausori and shared kava with their new friends.

And then they boarded the coach, air conditioned of course, and they took the road that wound its way back towards the city, through the palm trees and the poverty, over the Rewa Bridge, built by the European Union, and past the goal posts of Lelean High school Tamanivalu had already pointed out to his teammates as the plane came in to land.

Past the roadside fruit stalls and the roti shops and mosques of Nausori town they rolled, and into the bustle and noise of Suva with its boats bobbing on the harbour and its bus station thronged with workers heading back to their homes, where they will talk about the thing Fijian people talk about: their government, their rights, and their rugby.

Earlier in the day, at lunch time in Suva, I spent time asking fans which team they wanted to win the big game. Half said the Chiefs, and half said the Crusaders. When asked to elaborate, half said Tamanivalu, and half said Nemani Nadolo. Two national heroes, for the national obsession.

- NZ Herald

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