JUST a week earlier, Jo Tubuna, Inia Bola and Semi Tabaiwalu had featured prominently as Ba smashed Labasa 6-0 in a National Football League match in late July 1984.
Bola scored two goals, Tubuna set up one for Isimeli Nale, and Tabaiwalu was rock soild in defence. They were three of a kind, three of a special kind in a special team. They had won just about everything there was to win in local football and were part of the all-conquering Ba side that won the Inter-district Championship an unprecedented six years in-a-row from 1975-60.
The late Tubuna made his debut for Lautoka in 1974. He later moved to Suva in 1976 and played two seasons for the Whites before joining Ba in 1978 after being offered a job as a salesman at Ba Motor Parts.
The man from Naitasiri filled the void left by the retirement of the late Waisea Naicovu at centre back. Tubuna though was much more than just a formidable defender. He had a brilliant attacking game to add to his sound defensive qualities. He entertained local football fans for a good 10 years playing for the Men in Black and the national team.
On Friday night, August 3, 1984, Tubuna, Bola and Tabaiwalu were in Tavua. Around midnight, the three with one Kaminieli Tora, hired a van to take them to Ba. Ten minutes into the ride, their vehichle slammed into a fully loaded parked cane lorry on the Kings Rd at Varavu. The driver Solomone Ukitu said " a vehicle coming from the Ba side had its headlights on high beam" and having passed the vehicle he "switched on his own lights to high beam and saw the parked truck just metres away".
"The truck did not have any park lights on." Ukitu said he swerved to the right to avoid hitting the back of the truck "but it was too late".
Tubuna (window side) and Bola were seated in the front alongside Ukitu and were asleep at the time of the accident. "Inia fell towards me when the van hit the truck, which is why he was saved," Ukitu said. Tabaiwalu and Tora were at the back. Tubuna died instantly when the entire front left hand side of the van caved in from the force of the impact. Tabaiwalu, who scored Ba's winning goal in the 1980 (1-0) IDC triumph over Nadi at Govind Park, and Bola were seriously injured and admitted at the Lautoka hospital.
The news of Tubuna's death spread like wildfire. Fans, his mates and top officials knew that local football had lost a national treasure.
"It is a sad day for Fiji soccer. We have lost a national hero," FFA president Hari Pal Singh said.
His former Ba and Fiji coach and employer, the late Sashi Mahendra Singh described the gentle giant best, saying he was like "a son" to him.
"He was very obedient, honest and sincere in his work. I loved him very much. He will not be easily replaced. Tubuna may have been a terror on the field, but he also commanded much respect and friendship."
Ba mayor Kishore Govind remembered his as a 'caring" footballer.
"Tubuna's death was an unnecessary waste of life," Cr Govind said.
"He was a person who gave a lot of pleasure to the people of Ba with his performances on the field. He was dynamic, intelligent, and cared a great deal about younger players. His mastery of the game was as good as anyone in Fiji."
Ba FA chief Vinod Patel knew what we had lost: "It's a big blow to Ba and Fiji soccer".
On Monday, August 6, 1984, over 5000 mourners packed Govind Park for his final farewell. Led by the Tui Ba, Ratu Sakiusa Naisau, Tubuna was brought into his favourite ground for the last time. The pallbearers were his Ba and national team mates — Savenaca Waqa, Bale Raniga, Sam Work, Henry Dyer, George Samisoni and Vula Wate. His teammate Meli Vuilabasa and Singh, Ba's father of soccer, broke down and wept openly while paying their final respects. He was later buried at the Fiji Sugar Corporation Cemetery at Naidrodro. Tubuna left behind his wife Rebeka, who was pregnant at that time and five-year-old son Manasa, who went on to represent Lautoka and Tavua at district level. Bola and Tabaiwalu later recovered with the latter going on to coach Ba. That's the story of how the traditional giants of Fiji football lost their giant of all giants. As a 14-year old back then I heard of this tragedy. I heard and read of the man they said was a star of all stars, and although I did not get to see him play, I feel privileged to be able to put this piece together. This is for Manasa, his mum and family, Ba fans, past and present and Tubuna's teammates.
Thanks for the memories Jo.