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Profile: Ilivasi Tabua, man, player, national coach

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Ilivasi Tabua is the first Fijian to be appointed the national coach to the Rugby World Cup.

It is a heavy load on the dual international because he was brought in all of a sudden after Wayne Pivac deserted Fiji rugby, in totally un-Kiwi like behaviour.

Ilivasi was given less than a year to assemble and prepare the national side to France for the World Cup in September-October this year.

He comes at the tail end of a succession of expatriates including George Simpkin, Brad Johnstone, Greg Smith, Mac McCallion and Pivac who left last year.

When he was appointed about three months ago, Ilivasi joined the likes of Inoke Tabualevu, Josateki Sovau and Ilaitia Tuisese as the few Fijians to have coached the national side.

Ilivasi as a former Fiji and Australian rep but nothing much is known about his coaching class.

He was once dubbed the Human Skewer and feared for his crunching tackles which Springbok hooker Uli Schmidt can attest to.

After a brief stint as coach for Northland Tarumba in the domestic provincial competition on his journey home from the Land Down Under, Ilivasi helped coach the Tailevu Knights in the new franchise competition last year and the Fiji Warriors in the Pacific Six Nations competition involving shadow national teams from Samoa, Tonga and Fiji.

The Warriors reached the final but lost to the Samoans and hence Fiji Rugby Union looked to him for help because he was the only Fijian with credentials enough to take Fiji to the Rugby World Cup.

So now, Ilivasi, the player who once fell out of favour with national rugby selectors and forced him to try his luck in Australia, is back.

Last month he outlined some strict measures to be followed by fringe national reps who want to play in France, especially those in the national sevens team playing in the IRB World Sevens Series.

He drew criticism from players and fans alike but as Ilivasi said, he has to make a stand in the preparations for the Rugby World Cup.

Blood ties

"His name's George, my name's Ili, no big deal."

That's what Ilivasi says in reply to questions of his relation to 2000 coup frontman George Speight.

"We can't choose our family," Mr Tabua said.

"We hung out as kids.

"I know him personally.

"I used to go to their home in Lami with his younger brother.

"What he's (George) done, is his.

"I'm with sports, he's with politics," Mr Tabua said

Never in his wildest childhood dreams, did the thought of being a rugby legend cross Ilivasi's mind.

He thought that someday he would work for an organisation which would deal directly with the land, given his passion for geography and history.

He played for Fiji briefly in 1991 but then he left to seek his fortunes and a legend was born.

Family ties

Raised in a family of seven siblings five boys and two girls Ilivasi says theirs was a disciplined family setting mainly because their father was a teacher.

Ilivasi admits to giving his parents a tough time as a teenager which led to their decision to ship him to Australia for further education at the age of 16.

He spent the first 12 years of his childhood in the Lau group as his father's teaching profession entailed extensive moving around.

As if that wasn't bad enough, the inter-island shipping service was on a bi-annual basis which hindered their movement as a family.

Ilivasi started school at Mabula, Cicia in Lau before his family moved to the mainland in the 1970s.

His family settled at Naivicula, Tailevu where his father comes from.

This was soon followed by a "water" accident which resulted in his father's paralysed physical state.

His father Semi was to remain in that state for another 12 years before he passed away.

Ilivasi broke family tradition by going to Marist Brothers High School after his elder brothers attended Ratu Kadavulevu School.

Before that, he completed primary school at Marist Brothers Primary School at Suva Street.

His brothers Peni and Kitione took to boxing but Ilivasi played rugby, perhaps by chance and probably because of that, younger brother Tomasi, known as Mugabe to his St John-Marist club mates, followed.

In 1980, Ilivasi left to further his studies in Australia.

A rugby career came after and may not have been an immediate goal at that time.

"My parents thought it best because I was becoming a nuisance to them.

"They hoped it would straighten my path," Ilivasi said.

By nuisance he means the worry he caused his parents by hanging out with young boys whose activities included experimenting with home-brew and going to disco parties, not so much to dance (he hates dancing) but just to "hang out".

He doesn't deny being a hell-raiser who pushed his father to the limit.

But his group of friends was not the so-called mobs that loiter in and around parts of Kinoya today, he said.

"That crowd came after I was long gone."

Rugby ties

When Ilivasi became the national coach late last year, it was purely for the purpose of "helping Fiji rugby get to a place where it's supposed to be in the world circuit".

And being at the top is no easy task as he now has to "focus on the 22" instead of on himself as was the case in his days on the paddock.

Following his return to Fiji after a rugby stint in Japan, the opportunity of a lifetime presented itself when former national coach Pivac "pulled the plug" making way for Ilivasi as national rugby coach.

"I've learnt to be the best at what I do.

"You set a goal and work toward it. I always knew I'd be back. Fiji rugby boys in Australia had faith in me.

"They said I had talent, they told me to work hard and that nothing would just land on the table.

"For every good thing, there is a price. Nothing is for free. That's what pushed me on," Ilivasi said.

He recalls sitting as an Under-21 reserve on the Queensland rugby bench where it slowly dawned on him that he could play better than most of his peers on the field at that time.

"I knew I could go all the way as long as I stayed focused and committed.

"I would not let anything distract me. Injury was a speed bump, an obstacle that kept me up and running," he said.

For those who envy him as national coach and the trail of legendary tales in his rugby career, he says "there is no secret to success; it's just hard work. There is no quick-fix, otherwise they'd all be jumping in".

"For those who look up to me, I am blessed but I want people to turn around and say if he can do it, why can't I? He's got two legs, arms eyes, so do I."

The birth of a rugby legend

As an impressionable youngster, Ilivasi Tabua had a lot of cousins who played rugby.

This may have, in part, influenced his decision to play rugby at some stage, but not enough to dream of being a star in the sport.

"The Vatukoula rugby team was the team at that time," says Ilivasi.

"I had cousins playing for the team including Ilai Nabobo who went on to play for Fiji.

"Ilai gave me a jersey when I was just a kid.

"It was always in me thereafter to take it as a challenge," said Ilivasi.

In Sydney in the early 1980s, Ilivasi played for Western Suburbs in the Under-19 rugby team alongside former Fiji first-five Watisoni Nasalo and winger Tom Mitchell.

"It wasn't until I got to Australia that my conscience told me I could go places with the sport," he said.

Ilivasi gave up rugby for a year to pursue backpacking. A year later he was back in the sport and moved from Sydney to Queensland.

He says Sydney was "too much" while Queensland reminded him a lot of Fiji.

"Sydney was too fast, too go-go-go but while I was there, Peceli Kina (former Fiji rugby prop from Nadroga) helped me a lot.

"He was playing there at that time and wanted to get the Fijian boys together to form a team as some of us were on the wayside," he said.

"There was a lot of distraction at the time.

"Kings Cross was pumping, Manoa Thompson was also in the team and that's where everything started."

By the time he moved to Queensland, Ilivasi had spent his fun-filled days and was ready to focus and do what was necessary to rise in the rugby circles.

He said he met a lot of people along the way who were mostly on a stopover for a bit more money before moving on to other pastures or were there briefly in their travel pursuits.

"I was there because I wanted to see more of Australia," he laughs.

Ilivasi rubbed shoulders with former rugby players "Giant" Petero Civoniceva and halfback Isimeli Batibasaga who he calls were all in their prime while he was a budding junior player.

"I thought my time in Queensland was to set a trend and pave the way for the younger guys coming through and move to play at a higher level," he said.

Nine years later, Ilivasi returned to Fiji where he worked for six months at the Fijian Hotel as an activities co-ordinator.

While here, he was selected to represent Australia to Japan.

He was also determined to return to Australia after he was dropped from the Fiji team to play Samoa.

He appears still cut up over the matter but then, he says you win some and you lose some.

His first international tournament was in Dubai during a sevens circuit where they played on sand as there was no grass at all.

Ilivasi says his dream to wear the Fiji jumper at the Rugby World Cup in 1991 was reduced to nothing following an announcement that Fiji would not consider overseas-based players for the team.

The end result of his eagerness to play in the World Cup at any cost led to his selection in the Wallabies in 1995 and the rest, he says, is history.

He moved on to live and play rugby in Japan for four years where he subsequently coached the sport.

In 1998, he received a call from Fiji's then national rugby coach Brad Johnstone to play for Fiji at the 1999 World Cup.

"I knew I'd come back someday but it was just a matter of timing.

"I wanted to give something back to rugby because it had taken me places I wouldn't have seen otherwise.

"Through rugby I made friends for life, a great camaraderie with a team that was trustworthy, honest and one which bonded on and off the field," he said.

Rugby brought him luck as he got to see places in the eyes of other people including a visit to Robben Island where former South African President Nelson Mandela was imprisoned.

This was enabled through commentary work "on and off" in South Africa.

During the one month in South Africa for the Rugby World Cup, Ilivasi had quite an experience.

In his daily diary where he wrote about his experience to The Fiji Times, Ilivasi said he ate ostrich and giraffe.

He said that he didn't mind much about the taste because it was barbecued.

He has travelled the world quite extensively but South Africa had an impact on him as he says it was the dawn of a new awakening.

"To see how they live and to count our blessings as some of them didn't have three square meals a day and yet we complain.

"It changed a lot of things for me. I was exposed to the harsh realities of life among the poor in South Africa but it was a world away for me," he said.

10 things about the Human Skewer

He lives with his 75-year-old mother at Kinoya because he wants to catch up on lost time with her after years of being away in Australia.

He didn't know that there is a Queen Victoria School Old Boys Rugby Club in Toorak until a month ago, especially when his father was an old boy of QVS.

He was tagged the Human Skewer by a team mate who wrote a poem in his honour, which described how he played rugby.

His first paid job was as a seasonal worker in Australia where he picked anything from strawberries, rock melons and tomatoes to grapes and other seasonal fruits.

He has a reconstructed knee and shoulder from serious sports injuries.

He has refused to have an operation on his broken left forearm.

In all this, he maintains there is "a price to pay" for the love of rugby.

He doesn't care that he cannot collect his change with his left arm and once told doctors he collects his change with his right hand anyway.

With Libra as his star sign, the 42-year-old is the third youngest in the family.

He refuses to discuss his past relationships or nuclear family and says it is a sensitive matter.

His mother is often disappointed when he fails to forewarn her of his return from overseas jaunts.

This is because it prevents her from preparing a feast to welcome him home.

His favourite food is boiled fish with steamed green vegetables.

His favourite drink is whiskey and his favourite pastime is to get away to the beach or the mountains alone.

He studied rural and urban development in Australia.

His favourite song is Africa by Toto.

Apart from enjoying his own company, he loves his music and has been to live concerts by Pink Floyd, Sting, Diana Ross, Lionel Ritchie and the Eagles.