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Global ambitions fuel Fiji's 'rugby factory'

Global ambitions fuel Fiji's 'rugby factory'

Players at the Ratu Filise Rugby Club hold a prayer circle before training at a playing field in Namatakula, Fiji, Jul 1, 2022. (Photo: Reuters/Ian Ransom)

NAMATAKULA, Fiji: Ratu Filise Rugby Club's ragged pitch on Fiji's Coral Coast might seem an unlikely stepping stone to international stardom but a slew of the game's luminaries have left their mark on the patchy grass and run in tries under its slanted goalposts.

Ratu Filise's first team train on the ground as the sun sets on a sweaty afternoon, young men dreaming of following players like Tevita Kuridrani and Nemani Nadolo, who left the quiet village life to perform on the world's biggest stages.

"Our elders were very talented players and the new generation continues that," head coach Etika Tovilevu told Reuters.

"Rugby is in our genes."

Known in Fiji as "the rugby factory", the surrounding Namatakula village has long exported talent and the locals are proud to point out the family homes of the players who made it.

Dual code international Lote Tuqiri, capped 67 times for the Wallabies, keeps a big house fringed by coconut palms on the outskirts of town.

Household names like Tuqiri and former Wallabies centre Kuridrani, now playing in France, are just the tip of the iceberg.

Dozens of other players from the district carve out professional careers in rugby league and lower-tier rugby union around the world before returning home with capital to start families and businesses.

The exodus of talent has long been bittersweet for Fiji.

Seeing favourite sons thrive overseas is both a source of pride and regret as the country lacks the resources to keep them playing at home.

However, the departures to foreign shores may slow as Fijian Drua develop in Super Rugby.

Fiji's first professional team in the provincial competition, Drua won only two games in their debut season this year but were competitive against the established New Zealand and Australian sides.

Drua's home games in capital Suva and the steamy sugarcane town of Lautoka drew bumper crowds.

Commerce would come to a virtual halt in villages across the island nation as people crowded around televisions with the satellite feed to watch their games.

The players were feted like celebrities when they toured Fiji, having previously plied their trade in obscurity for local provinces.

It made up-and-comers in Namatakula earning "lunch money" - or nothing - for playing rugby sit up and take notice.

"That's their main goal now," said Tovilevu, a former championship-winning flyhalf for Fiji's powerhouse province Nadroga-Navosa.

"The way they saw them playing on TV and what they have earned and all these things has really motivated the boys to try and be part of the team one day."

"SOMETHING TO GIVE"

Having top local players test themselves against the best from Australia and New Zealand in Super Rugby has also raised hopes for the national team in the leadup to next year's World Cup in France.

Samoan rugby has already benefited from the establishment of Moana Pasifika, which joined Drua as one of two expansion sides in Super Rugby this season.

More than a dozen players from the New Zealand-based Moana team featured in Samoa's recent Pacific Nations Cup win in Fiji.

The Drua dividend has yet to filter through to the Flying Fijians, who came a disappointing third in the four-nation tournament.

But Tovilevu says the national team may benefit as more talented players stay home to bid for a Drua contract rather than head abroad.

A World Rugby rule change that allows players to switch nationality after a three-year stand-down period could also entice more senior Fijian internationals to return home after representing other countries.

"Players still want to go overseas to get a contract," Ratu Filise captain and loose forward Joe Yaya told Reuters.

"But the goal for most is that one day we have to wear the white jersey of Fiji."

Ratu Filise's training pitch doubles as a yard for the local primary school, so the club always has a healthy intake of juniors.

Ratu's successful alumni regularly return from Australia and adopted homes in Europe bearing gifts of new football boots and other kit.

They also bring contacts and connections with professional clubs overseas, and are happy to share them.

"This is how it is here," said Tovilevu.

"They go away but always come back with something to give."

Source: Reuters/ng

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