HUNDREDS of diehard rugby fans and families turned up at Cuvu Village in Nadroga last Saturday to pay their last respects to a rugby legend, an icon, and a hero in Rupeni Qaraniqio.
The former Fiji rugby skipper was Fiji's number one openside flanker for several years and earned the respect of many rugby men who gave him the nickname of 'Spoiler' while he was 'Quran' to teammates and close friends.
He emerged during one of the golden eras of Fiji rugby, where they beat the touring Lions, came close to toppling the All Blacks, Maoris, England, France, Ireland, Italy and Australia and whipped Tonga and Samoa in rugby Tests.
Apart from that, he was the guy with the soiled hands in the engine room when Nadroga ruled the roost, remaining unbeaten and holding the Farebrother-Sullivan Trophy for nine long years.
Those nine years spanned the peak of his rugby career and while there were other heroes in the star-studded side, he was outstanding, like the paladin of King Arthur's knights.
Fiji Rugby Union president and former teammate Ratu Isikeli Tasere in his eulogy, desctribed Qaraniqio in the Nadroga dialect as a tohiri tahila, meaning he stood out from the host of other heroes because of his consistency when he represented his province and his country.
The highlight of his career was when he played flanker for the Fiji team that tamed the British Lions at Buckhurst Park in 1977. Before that, he featured in another close battle with New Zealand All Blacks and also Australia.
He played number eight in the famous Nadroga side that lost to the New Zealand All Blacks 14-6 in 1980 at Churchill Park.
While many only knew him through his exploits on the rugby field, they came to know of what made him the man he was during the church service.
He was a chief in his own right, the leader of the tokatoka Nakabasi, the warlord in the mataqali Nakuruvarua and Yavusa Louvatu.
While he was from the chiefly family of Nakuruvarua, he had maternal links with the warrior clan of Vuniniudamu in Voua Village.
Speaking from the maternal side, Levani Ribihewa said Qaraniqio had a warrior's blood in him and that was why he was tough and uncompromising.
His maternal ancestors were war heroes and responsible for the many victory battles in the old days for the Kalevu.
Teammates who attended the funeral included Ravuama Latilevu and Lautoka's Watisoni Nasalo who played first-five when they almost beat the All Blacks 14-13 at Buckhurst Park in 1974. Also there was retired schoolteacher, rugby player and Fijian newspaper editor from Beqa, Samisoni Bolatagici. Other former teammates included Meli Nasauravua, Jo Green Rayawa, Tevita Makutu and current national lock Sekonaia Kalou.
In his eulogy, speaking for the chiefly Nakuruvarua clan at the church service, Ratu Orisi Lalabalavu highlighted Qaraniqio's tough upbringing as a cane farmer having been a product of the Drasa Training Farm.
The institute trained hundreds of farmers in the cane belt and sent them back to the villages having a high success rate as far as producing productive Fijians.
The school has long closed and Qaraniqio was of the last special breed of farmers and only a handful may still exist in villages in the west.
They were disciplined like soldiers, always punctual, clean-shaven and often seen in leading roles of society because of their Drasa upbringing.
"He was a hardworking farmer (E hila na dauseisei)," Ratu Orisi repeatedly stressed.
In his prime, he cut a prominent figure with the 70s fashion of broad sideburns and bushy moustache, a straw hat made of coconut leaves with his cane knife going or coming back from the farm daily.
Longtime referee, former player and administrator Sitiveni Kunaika said Qaraniqio was not only, tough and fit he was also known as a skillful player.
He was of the old calibre of openside flankers who thrived because of their support play.
He threw dummies and set up outside players like a centre three-quarter and his cover defence spoiled the attacking moves of the opposition.
Kunaika remembers a Farebrother-Sullivan match against Suva when several Suva attackers following a high kick found Qaraniqio isolated in deep cover near his tryline.
Cool and collected he gathered the ball and then threw a dummy to the wing on the sideline.
The Suva players were wrongfooted, leaving a huge gap and Qaraniqio raced through the opening turning defence into attack.
I also had my brush with fame in 1980 and I was the culprit in the Suva C sevens team that caused our 12-18 loss to Nadroga A during sudden death play of the quarterfinals of the then SUN Sevens tournament, a final trial tourney for the Hong Kong Sevens.
All this happened because I overlooked Qaraniqio's speed and skills.
Nadroga had Qaraniqio, Eveni Tuituba and Jo Green Rayawa as forwards, Isimeli Batibasaga at half back, Wame Gavidi at first-five, Tevita Makutu at rover and Robert Howard at wing.
We had Viliame Ratudradra, who was transferred from Lautoka to Suva by the Public Works Department.
The other forwards were Ilaitia Boila, Palele Heritage and Simione Serukalou.
Halfback was Vilisoni Vakatalai, now a bowler, playmaker Sani Tagivetaua and winger Dan Whippy. I was at rover and given the kicking responsibilities by coach Pio Bosco.
I had a successful kick-off combination with Viliame Ratudradra where I would lob the ball from kick-off just inside the corner where the sideline and ten-metre opposition line met.
Ratudradra would often pluck the ball out of the air and speed down the flank. We led 12-0 at half-time from two tries and Nadroga drew level 12-12 at full-time.
From the kickoff in sudden-death, I over kicked and Ratudradra missed the ball.
Another kickoff was awarded and I saw the Nadroga forwards standing away from the ten metre line.
So I tapped the ball, rolling it on the ground past the ten-metre and as expected, I got there first and slowed down to pick the ball but ended up grabbing grass.
Qaraniqio took two giant steps forward and swung a left kick like a soccer player sending a pass across field.
The ball travelled at shoulder level for about thirty metres right into the bread basket and chest of Fiji speedster Robert Howard who shot like a bullet to the tryline under the posts to win the game.
Nadroga referee Naveni said he watched most of Qaraniqio's games and there were just so many moments of brilliance he witnessed, but could not recall because he was grog doped.
He was one of the hundreds of rugby men battling each other in the number of vakatunuloa drowning their sorrow in big piala and fibre of the traditional drink at the Cuvu Village green.
Hero worship is a vanishing commodity, but hundreds of men, women, mostly forty years and over stood proudly not so much with tears, but glint of pride in their eyes as the final rites was conducted by church catechist Mesu on the village graveyard, a few metres from Qaraniqio's home.
While he was soft-spoken, he was not bashful and his action and achievements on the rugby field, as a successful cane farmer and tribal leader spoke louder than words.
He was a true gentleman on and off the field, never retaliated when subjected to dirty tactics, especially against the Tongans in rugby Tests.
According to former teammate Latilevu, he would get up, shrug off the dust and continue as powerfully as ever before.
From his grave he continued to teach us of some valuable lessons.
For the Nadroga rugby team, the sand hills of Uluinuku and battling the elements of the scorching western sun toughens the body more than any modern training methods. Farmers make tough rugby players because of the solar power.
While he never aspired to be a politician, his example as a successful farmer should provide government and political leaders an insight of what the future should be for our Fijian youths.
There have been calls of re-establishing the Drasa Training Farm over the years but nothing has happened.
As a farmer, warrior, chief and rugby star, he epitomised all the qualities that birth greatness in a leader.
The funeral service was conducted by Nadroga divisional superintendant Reverend Bose and the Bible verse provided was a fitting epitaph to a busy, useful life.
It says in the Book of Ecceleciates 9: 10 "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest."
Again, for the thousands of rugby fans all over the country, and those who could not attend the funeral, we say so long and farewell Quran the Spoiler.
Thanks for all the memories.