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Manoj Kumar
Monday, December 31, 2012

Suva had just won its first football tournament on western soil (Battle of the Giants) since beating Rakiraki in the 1951 Inter-District Championship in Ba.

Holland, with two of the world's most stylish and prolific marksmen (Rudd Gullit and Marco Van Basten) were on their way to winning the European Championship. And, the world was waiting with bated breath, the "Once And For All" unbeaten duo Mike Tyson versus Michael Spinks World Heavyweight Championship showdown. Iran Barkley had knocked out Thomas Hearns in the third round to win the World Boxing Council Middleweight title and the Los Angeles Lakers were heading to a 4-3 win over Detroit Pistons to bag the NBA crown.

The month was June and the year 1988.

England Test

There was a lot happening on the world stage, but back home the focus was on the Ilaitia Tuisese-coached new-look Fiji rugby team.

A lot of the regulars, such as 1987 World Cup skipper Koli Rakoroi, were suspended for six months for their role in the South Pacific Barbarians tour of South Africa after the World Cup. The Springboks were banned from international competition by the International Rugby Board until such time apartheid was over.

Our reps were suspended in January, but that was back dated to December. This meant that in the first week of June, most of our top suspended players would be eligible for selection for the June 16 one-off Test with England at the National Stadium in Suva. This was going to be only the third meeting between the two countries with England winning the last two (13-12 in 1973 and 19-7 in 1979).

It was every player's dream to try and get into the Test team for this one as England were coming with players such as Royal Air Force jet pilot Rory Underwood, who would go on to become his country's top try scorer in international matches.

Then there was midfield back Will Carling, who would go on to skipper the English and talented stand-off Rob Andrew (MBE), who went on to play 71 Test matches and captained the British and Irish Lions against France in 1989.

No 'rebels'

Two weeks before the Test, the 'rebels' suspensions were lifted. However, with freedom came some bad news. The national team had been doing considerably well without some of our stars. Fiji had beaten New South Wales (29-10) and Queensland (34-9) in the South Pacific Championship and later went on to win the Pacific Four Nations shield against Samoa, Tonga and Hawaii.

It was then decided by the team management that players returning from suspension would not be considered for selection. They stated that the only way these players could get into the team was if someone pulled out with injury. This angered the returning players.

Rakoroi claimed that they were being treated like "stepbrothers". He said they felt let down, adding that it would be best for "us" to look for contracts abroad.

"If it can happen now, it can happen again. No problems, we will sit and watch them play England," Rakoroi had said.

Inexperienced side

So there was no spot against England for lock Rakoroi, bearded winger Tomasi Cama, number eight and former police commissioner Esala Teleni, halfback and former Japan sevens coach Paulo Nawalu, ginger-haired flanker and number eight, the late Iokimi Finau, towering lock Asaeli Hughes and flanker and former national team coach Ifereimi Tawake. Only big-kicking fullback Severo Koroduadua and lock forward, the late Aisake Nadolo forced their way in after two players went out injured.

A relatively inexperienced Fiji team was picked for the Test. Navatuvula, Naitasiri, villager Jone Kubu was fullback with naval officers Niko Baleiverata and Tom Mitchell on the wings. Hard-hitting Nadi ace Savenaca Aria and the block-busting Stallion Noa Nadruku were the midfield backs. Policeman Koroduadua (first-five) and Nabua's Pauliasi Tabulutu shared the halves combination. Nadi's Peceli Gale was number eight with another navy officer Sakeasi Vonolagi and policeman Pita Naruma the flankers. Naitasiri giant and soldier Mesake Rasari was at locks with the late Nadolo. Naqeledamu, Tailevu, villager Ilisoni Naituku and now BSP officer Mosese Taga were the props with now ASP Salacieli Naivilawaqa the hooker.

What if

Four penalties were all we could get on the board. Koroduadua's kicks were not good enough as England won 25-12. Flyer Underwood scored two tries and centre Bryan Barley one while flyhalf Stuart Barnes kicking 13 points with three penalties and two conversions (four points were awarded for tries back then).

Coach Tuisese conceded that "fitness factor and inexperience" proved his team's downfall.

There was a little bust-up towards the end of the game with Taga sent-off.

For a team with so little caps shared between them, the score line was not too bad considering they were outplayed by the aggression of the English forwards.

What if we had used some of our returning seasoned regulars? Perhaps that was our chance to dump the English as they had been beaten twice by the Wallabies (22-16 and 28-8).

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