Thursday, June 28, 2007

Rugby's Forgotten Warriors

Former national sevens rugby forward Timoci Wainiqolo harbours a dream. It's the same one former Macuata representatives Viliame Gauna and Jone Dike have. It's to see the development of potential rugby stars on Vanua Levu. They've had their taste of mixing it with the big guns of the game, rode their wave and lapped up the limelight.
It's now about living a dream.
At the grassroots level, budding stars like Vuo hooker Liqorio Toma, and backrowers Nato Bulavakarua, Akuila Matawaqa and Suliano Kaivei share an enthusiasm that's inspired fans of the game in the northern town of Labasa.
They yearn for a taste of the big time.
For them, it's about living a different dream. One that involves a fair share of the rugby cake. It's about carving a name for themselves, churning a path through the stagnant waters of northern rugby.
Being named for trials to select the Macuata squad this year is just the first step of a dream that's entwined with that harboured by their former stars.
Sitting in the province of Macuata, in the north-eastern end of Vanua Levu, Labasa is caged in by three rivers, the Wailevu, Labasa and the Qawa.
The heat is almost unbearable. Humidity levels range on the high scale.
With a population of 24,187 at the last census in 1996, the town struggles economically.
But it's on the sporting field that dreams are realized.
It's when players like Toma, Nato, Puna and Suli build castles.
Their Eden Park is the second ground at Subrail Park.
A park where matches are held up when the ball has to be fetched in from over the corrugated iron fencing that cuts out Subrail Park, every time it's kicked for touch.
Big Jim believes there's heaps of talent in the north. It's a sentiment echoed by Bill and John.
"I think the first thing the FRU should try doing is open up a gym, even if it's a small one here," says Jim.
"We may have talented players here, but we lack size.
"If you talk about speed, flair and guts, we have that in abundance.
"I think we need to nurture these qualities, build on our strengths, improve our knowledge of the game and we should be right.
"I have noticed something here. Players are too lazy to do strength training. But then again, maybe it's to do with the fact that we do not have readily available weight training facilities in the north."
Bill, a centre in the Macuata sides of 1997 through to 2002 which played in the Major Union competition agrees with Jim.
"Apart from the weight training facilities, I think we need to develop the grassroots level," he says.
"Our players have the potential to develop in every aspect of the game.
"I feel we are just not been given the opportunity to realize our potential.
"I understand the level of competition required because I've gone through it. Unfortunately most of our players have not tasted that yet.
"Right now, I'd like to see more emphasis placed on the development of primary and secondary school level rugby.
"An idea would be for organisers of northern secondary schools rugby to try and lobby for a spot in the Deans Trophy competition quarter-finals like what their western counterparts have done.
"It would be an idea to have a competition here pitting the top sides from around the northern division with the winner traveling over to play in the quarter-finals in Suva.
"Then maybe we could move on to holding competitions in tiers starting from a colts grade through to the senior level, which we don not have now.
""I'd like to see more development work done by the FRU here in the north. I'd like to see more coaching clinics, a weights training facility and maybe more focus on our competition here in the north."
Para field
I chuckled to myself when I saw the ground the Vuo rugby side trained on. But this was followed by a sense of sadness.
The ground is situated just before you enter the village on the way to Malau.
It's the size of the 22m area on a normal rugby field.
As you look back towards Vunika, the ground is uneven towards the right, stretching towards paragrass on the left. So when the Vuo team trains in the afternoons, one part of the team stands on uneven ground while the other part stands in knee high paragrass.
At lineout time, the hooker throws in from the road end of the park which is the paragrass end.
The unavailability of a proper training ground fails to douse the enthusiasm in the Vuo side.
I watched with awe when they stretched Service to the wire in the challenge match the other Saturday before going down in an exciting finale to the local competition.
I watched the smaller Vuo scrum hold the bigger Service pack led by giants like Josaia Tadu and Pio Ratavo.
They rode on enthusiasm and adrenalin.
"Whatever happens, I feel there needs to be more effort put into developing the game in the north," says John.
"It's imperative they do that. It'll be for the betterment of the game in the country."
I left Jim at the new courthouse right next to Macuata House. A giant of a man.
Bill retains the size that saw him terrorise midfield backs in his time and John now works at the FSC's Malau Bulk.
For Toma and his gang, the waiting game continues.
They will be at it again this weekend, hoping for a win to keep their hopes alive for a spot in the elimination rounds of the competition.
For them, the door has opened. They played their hearts out at Naodamu against Seaqaqa with hardly a soul watching while thousands either stayed home or went to the Post Fiji Stadium to watch Fiji draw with Australia A.
This week, it'll be business as usual, crowd or no crowd.
But they'll be keeping their fingers crossed hoping someone high up there decides to look their way.
If that doesn't happen, then they'll just be happy to continue playing the game they love, with enthusiasm and tonnes of passion.