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A gentle giant that was Ilaitia Savai

Kameli Rakoko
Monday, February 02, 2015

ILAITIA SAVAI, a hero of the 1987 inaugural Rugby World Cup, was laid to rest last week at his village in Tailevu but his achievements and memories live on.

In 1994 the Nakalawaca man was runner-up in the Sportsman of the Year award and the Fiji Rugby Union, while nominating him, said he was a good ambassador for Fiji and he was an asset to any management.

"Rugby has made me a public figure and has also taught me the real values of life," said Ilaitia Savai when interviewed in a rugby newspaper in 1995 at the latter part of his rugby career.

He said rugby meant a lot to him as it had improved his life and he earned the respect of many as he was a gentleman on and off the field never receiving any yellow or red card in his rugby career.

He was playing rugby in amateur days but globe-trotting like a professional player.

In the era when money was not an incentive but sheer love of the game and the will to win for your fans drives a tougher motivating factor in all young players.

That's where Savai fitted in.

He lamented that at most times, young players were not responsive to instructions.

Savai said young players must learn to have pride in themselves and once they achieved this, they could be proud of their country and would begin to do the right thing.

Savai played through three different eras in Fijian rugby.

He was a member of the Fiji side that beat Argentina in pool play and lost to France in the quarterfinals of the 1987 RWC.

He stayed on and used his experience to help revive Fijian rugby.

We had failed to win a match in the 1991 Rugby World Cup and failed to qualify for the 1995 RWC in South Africa while Samoa became the new regional champion.

But he was in the team that beat Samoa 20-13 in 1994 that brought pride back into the Fijian jersey.

Savai played through the era of free jumping in the lineouts without any support and he was one of Fiji's best lineout jumpers.

He played most of his rugby in Nadroga and then in his later years in Nadi.

He first emerged as a lanky young man playing for Hyatt Rugby Club and played for Nadroga Colts in 1981 and 1982 and since a regular Nadroga senior rep.

His big frame of six foot five and 115kg, coupled with discipline always saw him a first choice lock in any team and his partnership with Koli Rakoroi went on for many rugby seasons.

Savai made his national debut in 1984 and according to the Fiji Rugby Union records he was a reserve and went in to replace Nasoni Uluvula who was partnering Rakoroi.

The Fiji team that day had the Suva front row of Rusiate Namoro and Epeli Rakai at props with Peter Kean at hooker.

Sela Gutugutuwai and Iokimi Finau were flankers while Esala Teleni played at number eight.

Dusilele Bola was their halfback with Acura Niuqila at first receiver.

Emosi Katonitabua man the second five-eight position and Tevita Rauluni at centre while Nadi trio — wingers Setareki Varo and Senivalati Laulau — Epeli Turuva was the last man of defence playing at fullback.

The Wallabies had the great names of Argentine Enrique Rodriguez and Andy Mcyntyre as props, Tom Lawton at hooker with locks Nigel Holt and Bill Campbell.

Chris Roche and Simon Poidevin were flankers with Ross Reynolds at number eight.

Phil Cox was playing at halfback with Mark Ella, Michael Lynagh and Andrew Slack making the inside backs combination

Big winger Brendan Moon and Peter Grigg were the wingers with David Campese at fullback.

Nick Farr-Jones was at the reserve bench.

Campese scored the only try of the match while Lynagh kicked here penalties and Ella made a drop goal while Turuva scored Fiji's only points with a penalty.

In the famous RWC 1987 win over Argentina Savai scored a majestic final try of the game for Fiji to win 28-9 after a lineout.

The team that day: 1. Sairusi Naituku, 2. Salacieli Naivilawasa, 3. Rusiate Namoro, 4. Koli Rakoroi, 5. Ilaitia Savai, 6. Peceli Gale, 7. Manasa Qoro, 8. John Sanday, 9. Pauliasi Tabulutu, 10. Elia Rokowailoa, 11. Kavekini Nalaga, 12 . Tomasi Cama, 13. Epineri Naituku, 14. Serupepeli Tuvula, 15.Severo Koroduadua.

Current parliamentarian backbencher Samu Vunivalu replaced Peceli Gale and Paulo Nawalu replaced Tabulutu.

Savai played for Waikato in 1986 and 1987 and returning from the world cup he switched to play for Queensland.

In 1989 he returned to play for Suva and in 1990 moved down to Nadi where he played the rest of his provincial games until he retired.

When Savai moved to Nadi in 1990 he helped the men in navy blue play some of their best games of the years by winning and retaining the Benson & Hedges Cup.

Nadroga came and took it in 1992, kept it for one week and Suva took it and Nadi got it back in 1993.

They retained it until 1995 when Nadroga came and took it again to retain it until Naitasiri took it in 1998.

Savai was a gentle giant but bore the scars of battle in the tight five against top oppositions around the world in his facial features especially the cauliflower ears that earmarked rugby locks.

We say so long. May your family find comfort, may you rest in peace and may a nation never forget its heroes.

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