Fuli laments on 2002 ‘red card’ incident

WHEN the Fiji 7s team runs into Robina Stadium at Gold Coast, Australia for the rugby 7s competition in the 2018 Commonwealth Games today, there is one among us who will keep his fingers crossed.

Fiji’s pool matches are against Sri Lanka 1.21pm (Fiji time, versus Uganda (7.53pm) and Wales (11.33pm).

Former Fiji rugby rep Saiasi Fuli will watch closely.

His fingers will be crossed because he does not want the repeat of the 2002 games in Manchester, England.

He was red-carded and sent off during the final which saw New Zealand win the gold medal, for the second time.

Gordon Tietjens, now with Samoa, coached NZ while Alifereti Cawanibuka, the father of current Fiji 7s team trainer, Nacani, was Fiji coach.

Fuli, now the assistant coach to Fiji 7s’ Gareth Baber was the halfback in master Cawanibuka’s star-studded line-up. Fiji had breezed through to the final, but Fuli’s marching order was all that the Kiwis had been praying for — a Fiji’s grave mistake.

So, the ghost from 16 years ago is awake today, like every Commonwealth Games, haunting Fuli.

“The right word is unfortunate,” Fuli said.

“For me it was the saddest day in my rugby career because at that time I was at my peak. It was the darkest day for me in my recollection of that Commonwealth Games final in 2002. We had the upper hand and the advantage to beat New Zealand.”

Fuli was sent off by Australian referee Stuart Dickson four minutes from full time after he was charged for a late tackle on New Zealand’s Bradley Flemming.

“It was not that reckless,” Fuli recollected while talking to this newspaper at Albert Park before the Commonwealth Games in Australia.

“It was a slight late tackle on Flemming. It was unintentional because it happened on the spur of the moment.

“I was cleared later because according to the law then because the jury found that it was not reckless. It was ruled that it was a slight late charge. Even though I got cleared later, it was too late, the game had been won.”

The team had stars such as the king of 7s rugby Waisale Serevi, three of the world’s lethal wingers then — Marika Vunibaka, Filimoni Delasau and Rupeni Caucau, who were all brought in from Super Rugby in New Zealand.

There were hard hitting Kadavu native Setareki Tawake, Viliame ‘The Stretccher’ Satala, Jope Tuikabe and Semisi Naevo.

“That moment of madness let the whole country down. I had my red card and Tuikabe a yellow card. Within those two minutes of sin bin which was very, very important in that final, it cost us the gold medal.

“The team in 2002 was one of the best Fiji 7s teams to be selected. We managed to secure three Super Rugby players. The team was the best in the business. We were in our peak. Waisale Serevi was at his best and he controlled play and masterminded the moves.

“There were Vunibaka, Delasau and Caucau. We just needed to create space and opportunities and we watch them fly. They were unstoppable. They would score, run back and score again. We were fit, everyone. Our weapons were fit and speed.

“The whole objective of that tour was to win gold. It was the best team led by Master Cawanibuka. We played with intent, with the purpose of getting the gold medal and in a split second, because of my mistake, everything changed.

“I blame myself as a player and individual because that mistake cost us that gold medal. Today I regret what I did even though it was unintentional. I apologise to everyone.

“I was criticised for that incident, and I took responsibility for my action. I had learnt from the criticisims, and had moved on strongly. Today I share my mistake to players, friends, young people and teams so that they learn and do not commit the same mistake.

“In every Commonwealth Games and even at times when I am alone, that incident always comes back. It has been haunting me for so long. Today I still regret what I did in that spur of the moment. I still blame myself that I let the team down. It was a very solid team.

“Everyone was disappointed. That year was our best chance to win the gold medal and I let the team and the country down. From that time until today we are still falling short of that medal.

“We steamrolled our opponents from the pool games and right to the final. We were confident that we could easily beat New Zealand, but it was my miscalculation on controlling myself on the timing when Flemming kicked the ball and my tackle which affected us.

“There was no intention of harming Flemming. It was in the second half with four minutes left and as I sat on the bench, I bowed my head in shame cursing myself because I knew wewere done. Game over, and I caused the loss.

“During the hearing the panel said it was supposed to be a yellow card. Whether the referee was right or wrong, he was the sole judge of the match.

“Until today I am still disappointed. I sat on he bench ashamed and lost. I did not want to come back to Fiji and wanted to get as far away from everyone, but my teammates encouraged me after the final.

“Serevi comforted me and said ‘For every rugby player, if you fall today, you will get up tomorrow and continue. That encouraged me and I endured all the pain from the criticisms.”

But Fuli, bred and raised from Nabua, outside Suva, fighting the odds is in his blood.

Sixteen years to date he is the assistant Fiji 7s coach, but as 7s at the Gold Coast starts today, and even the ghost of the red card returns, Fuli will use the torment to teach Fijian players to be rugby braves.

“There were positives from my error. It made me strong character wise because I learned to control my emotions while playing. I learned to be cautious.

“The best way I am sharing my experience is teaching our young players not to commit the same mistake. Discipline is one of the most important components of rugby nowadays, on and off the field.” Fuli will watch closely with hope that the team at Gold Coast commits less mistakes and play naturally to scoop that elusive 7s rugby gold medal.

“Since that day and in other Commonwealth Games, we had been hanging on to silver, this team can bring the gold home. Let us support them,” he said.