For Europeans, the word Fiji is something exotic, a special and completely different place away from the mundane. Usually a tropical paradise comes to mind. This idea also applies when people talk about Fijian rugby, as their players have a unique way of playing and a clear passion for rugby. For the first time in many years, that exotic flavour from the Fiji Islands has landed within Portuguese rugby, and this ‘Fiji Connection’ has given a fresh twist to it.
The two rugby nations have played each other only once in XV’s but have encountered the other in rugby sevens many times. Competing in the former IRB World Series, and the HSBC Sevens Series, they enjoy a competitive rivalry, with the Olympic Gold medalists often showing their brilliance and natural ability.
Now, that same rugby brilliance has made it’s way into Portugal. There’s nothing new about having in Portugal, players from different nations or speaking other tongues though. It all paints a colorful scenario and they add to their clubs. Players here come from New Zealand; Sam Henwood, former Chiefs player or Chris Eves, former Hurricanes prop).
Some from South Africa (PJ van Zyl for instance, played for the Boland Cavaliers back when they won the Currie Cup First Division, 2011) and Argentina (former Puma Julio Farias or Argentina National coach Daniel Hourcade who coached GD Direito) and so many other nations, have all .
But for the first time, Portuguese rugby had the pleasure of having Fijian players in their ranks for 2016: Lote Neiubi, Robert Delai and Meli Rokoua (see main photo).
The Portuguese-Fiji Connection: Who are They?
Lote Neiubi played for the Fiji U20’s team back in the Junior Rugby World Cup 2014 and had all the qualities to make him a superstar in the years after. Tall with a strong physique, Lote Nieubi made quite an impression in that World Cup. The lock chose to go to Portugal in 2015 and landed in Lisbon to play for AIS Agronomia.
After two seasons in Portugal, Lote Nieubi played 30 games, scored some tries (up to ten) and delivered a hard and breaking Fiji Style tackles; in the mold of Jerome Kaino of New Zeland.
His first season was a successful one and moved Agronomia to re-sign him for another season… the Fiji treasure box was opened, and the Lisbon team agreed not only to bring back Lote but two new Fijian players as well: Robert Delai and Meli Rokoua . Both also from Nadi district, in Viti Levu island.
Robert Delai (see main picture, right), a 30-year-old prop, had a short spell in New Zealand in 2007 and 2008 before going back to Fiji. While at home, the prop was selected to play for the Fiji Barbarians in the 2016 Americas Pacific Challenge in Uruguay, debuting for his countries ‘A’ side. A strong, smart and tough prop, Robert made an instant impact in Portugal, especially his scrummage technique proving crucial in some games of the Portuguese Premiership.
Players Bring High Work Rate and Incredible Pace
But the most successful of the three Fijians in 2016/2017 was Meli Rockoua, a flanker/winger/Centre who quickly became a serious case for the opposition side.
With eleven tries in 24 games, Meli Rokoua always showed an incredible pace, a tremendous intensity and an typical Southern Hemisphere high work rate capability. Qualities that almost made him a ‘Flying Fijian’ for HSBC Sevens Series back in 2015/2016.
Also, the way the center tackled drove opposition back, making the agrónomos defensively one of top qualities of the team in this season. So the Fijian fellowship took Agronomia and Portugal by storm, helping his Portuguese team go to the Premiership final and Portuguese Cup.
The foreign imports; the Fiji connection brought plenty. With awesome tries, top tackles, tight scrumaging and impressive offloads, all qualities from the standard Fijian player. But is it possible for Portugal to become a regular and good home for Fijian players? Or it is just an exception that won’t be repeated in years to come?
Decision to Leave Fiji: the Problems and Dangers of Imported Players
The coming of Lote Nieubi, Robert Delai and Meli Rokoua was possible through an agreement between the Nadi Rugby Union, Fiji and the AIS Agronomia team from Portugal.
In the Fiji Islands, the trio represented the Nadi Jets. Reaching the final of the Skipper Cup in 2014 – eventually losing to Naitasiri 25-21. Meli was even the public-face for the Nadi’s Jets and one of the best players in the region. So was the decision to come to Portugal a good one?
In the last two years, there were some ‘sad stories’ about imported Pacific Islands players feeling unwelcome in Europe. While extremely talented, gaining a contract offshore also brings ‘responsibility’ in helping their family or village back in Fiji, Samoa or Tonga.
The negative effective on the arrangement can be player agents and others are taking advantage of the Pacific Islands players innocence, by making them sign blind contracts. Such poor management can damage player welfare in the short term.
When player issues come to a head, there are a quite large number of agents who simply become ‘un-contactable’ when all goes wrong. Leaving the players with nothing to hold on to, and leading to a sad ending in some desperate situations.
To help protect these tiny nations, larger countries who hold a powerful incentive [rugby championships and top leagues attractive to Pacific Island players] must seek to help these players before it’s too late. For World Rugby, it’s imperative to fund an education program and to support a rugby careers program in the Pacific Islands. This will both address the problem at its root, and protect the well being and welfare of future players.
What’s Next for the Fiji Rugby Connection?
The trio that came to Portugal have become respected players and individuals. All have felt appreciated for what was done for them, even if the wages weren’t as good when compared to what French, English, Italian or Spanish clubs pay. Although, life in Portugal is calmer, simpler and is close to many major International player markets–to advance their stocks. For men like Lote, Robert and Meli, the Portuguese Premiership is a good starting point for anyone who wants to go up to the major leagues in Europe.
Now, after a hard fought year all three of the Portuguese Fijian connection players seemed happy with life at Agronomia. More than having to rely on each other, they were welcomed by Portuguese players families and communities. Making them feel like they were at home.
For parents Robert and Lote, it’s not easy to leave their young wives and sons, and travel to a distant country on the other side of the World. Not seeing them is the downside. At the end of the day, professional players are human beings as well. They all need the same good and peaceful life that amateur or semi-professional European players have. To gain that lifestyle in Portugal, that is possible with the infrastructure available to them.
The Fiji connection was possible; and only happened because of the vision and passion of one person. Both Portuguese Agronomia rugby fans, and friends and families of the Fijian players must pay Leonardo Falcão Trigoso a big favour. One of the board of directors from the Portuguese team, he ‘opened the door’ for Portugal to become a new home for Fiji players. He helped to give them opportunities to come and deliver their ‘offloads and aggressive tackle style’ into Portuguese rugby.
Exchange of Players Between Portugal and Fiji a Real Benefit
The agreement between both sides will feature more Fijian players from Nadi’s rugby union to come to Portugal, to play and study abroad while the Portuguese team will send training equipment and some funds back to the tiny nation.
For Robert Delai, Lotei Neiubi and Meli Rokoua, post-season they are heading back to their villages in Fiji in June. They will spend some time relaxing with their families and watching their old team Nadi from the stands.
Today it remains to be seen if Portugal can really become a true beacon of hope for Fijian players who dream of an International rugby career. Funding their families dreams and helping their people, while thriving in a strong rugby scene. It has been a success here, and LWOR wish those men all the best in their futures.
Note: The first (or one of the firsts) Fijians to ever play in a Portuguese team was Walasi Serevi, one of the biggest 7’s rugby legends of all-time. He played for RC Lousã in 1994, winning the famous Madrid 7’s.
Main photo credit: Felipe Monte Photography/Jose Vergueiro