THERE cannot be a better place than Rochdale for the Vodafone Fiji Bati to start its Rugby League World Cup campaign.
Situated north-northeast of the city of Manchester, England, the town in which Fiji first gained fame in rugby league will play host to the Fiji versus Ireland match on October 28.
Fijian rugby league and Rochdale's connection goes back to the 1960s when Orisi Dawai and Joe Levula became the first Fijian players to join Rochdale Hornets, the town's rugby league team.
They eventually became Fiji's first professional rugby league players and ignited the growth of the sports in the country which was a purely rugby union nation then.
Mike Ratu Sr was one of the players from Fiji who played for the Rochdale Hornets.
"Rochdale introduced rugby league to us," Ratu told rlwc2013.com.
"The British side were touring Australia in 1958. At the same time, the Fiji Rugby Union side was touring Australia. The manager of the Britain touring side was called Arthur Walker, and he was the chairman of Rochdale Hornets.
"The touring party went to watch one of the Fiji rugby union sides playing, and they saw the Fijian players running, and combined with their physical size, they were overwhelmed."
Impressed with the athleticism of the players, Walker saw the potential in the Fijians.
"He was impressed with this wingman Joe Levula who was six-foot four and 17 and a half stone playing on the wing. The way the Fijians ran and passed the ball with one hand to each other, they couldn't believe what they were seeing," Ratu said.
Levula and Dawai joined the Rochdale Hornets in 1961 and became the ambassadors of Fiji rugby league.
Ratu was part of the British Army recruitment and after leaving the army he moved to Rochdale and joined the Hornets in 1965.
About three decades later in 1992, the Fiji National Rugby League was formalised and rugby league has since grown in leaps and bounds in Fiji.
Fiji made its debut in the RLWC in 1995.
The major highlight of the Fiji Bati was the top four finish in the 2008 RLWC.
This year, the hopes are even higher of a better finish considering the calibre of the players in the team.
Ratu said Rochdale was looking forward to hosting the Fiji Bati team which moves camp there this week.
"It was emotional when we won the bid, now with the help of the council and the RLWC2013 organisers, we're having a big reception for them," he said.
"I have a lot of phone calls from the Fijian army boys and Fijians in London. The town will be full of Fijians and they'll be cheering for Fiji. There will be a lot of singing, and we'll be celebrating whatever happens.
"To have the Fiji Bati in our town, I can't describe it."