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Blast from the past

Maikeli Seru
Saturday, October 28, 2017

AT 9.30pm today in Australia, the Fiji Bati enters its fifth Rugby League World Cup, the nonpareil or best event in global rugby league.

The 2017 edition kicked off last night between world champions Australia and arch rival England.

Rugby league is billed as the tough men's sport. So physical that the thuds, bumps, hit and tackles can be heard by spectators as bodies collide on the pitch during a match.

The sport was introduced in Fiji in the early 1990s, but our rugby league circle has stories that Fijian players had made their mark in the code in the 1960s.

This is when players such as Joe Levula and Laitia Ravouvou joined Rochdale Hornets in England and became household names in the English competition.

Fiji grew from the then Fiji Rugby League to now Fiji National Rugby League.

It came through development years under the guidance of the then Australian Rugby League (ARL) to what it is today.

It survived the years of battles with rugby union where players who convert to rugby league were banned for life. Rugby league was seen as the enemy in the oval ball game, less on a code where Fijians have an avenue to show their sporting excellence.

The 2017 Vodafone Fiji Bati team, today, has almost all National Rugby League-based players. NRL is unrivalled as the toughest and the best in the world.

One of the pioneers of the sport is back in the country. The first captain, Livai Nalagilagi of Yavu, Batiki, Lomaiviti.

After he set history as the skipper of the first Fiji Bati to play in a RLWC, 'Li' as he was known then in the rugby league circles, is the first Fijian to be accredited as a trainer and assessor for heavy plant and machineries under the Land Transport Authority.

Rugby league helped him in his career. From a Fijian star, he tapped on his talents off the field and prepared himself for the workforce and for his future post rugby league days.

In his days, he played alongside stars such as Noa Nadruku, also dual rugby international who helped Fiji Rugby Union in the hat-trick victories in the Hong Kong 7s.

He lives in Australia now after becoming the first Fijian to play for the Canberra Raiders.

He played alongside greats like current Australia coach Mal Meninga, Ricky Stuart, Laurie Daley and Brett Mullins in the Super League era. These greats had played in Fiji with some other NRL stars.

Nalagilagi's rugby prowess took him to Australia where he was immediately spotted by rugby league scouts. That's how it started for him, he said.

Fiji took part in their first world cup in 1995 where, just as the 2000 world cup, they had the misfortune to be placed in the same group as England and Australia. Fiji Bati made a massive impression in our opening game where we thrashed South Africa, 52-6. The team was the darling of the crowd, not only because of the win, but also the way the team played.

The squad had players such as Noa Nadruku, Pio Nakubuwai, Niumaia Korovata, Fili Seru, Iliesa Toga, Josaia Dakuitoga, Malakai Kaunivalu, Waisale Sovatabua, Kaleveti Naisoro, Livai Nalagilagi, Orisi Cavuilati, Noa Nayacaklou, Ian Sagaitu, Saveneca Taga, Jioji Vatubua, Apisalome Degei, Samuela Marayawa, Ulaiasi Wainidroa, Samuela Davetawalu, Kiniviliame Koroibuleka, Kaiava Salusalu.

"We were impressive. We had some good players such as Pio Nakubuwai and Kaiava Salusalu. We used our running rugby and we clicked.

"The crowd loved the way we played and I guess that style suits us.

"For me, rugby league was a long journey. I started off playing rugby league in 1990 with the Nissan 7s in Sydney with the likes of Noa Nadruku, Pau Tabulutu, Alifereti Dere, Salusalu, and Jo Dakuitoga. I went over to Sydney to play rugby union and I was supported by a rugby league scout. That was how I started playing rugby league," he said.

"In those days, it was not easy, especially brought up in rugby union. When we started off, it was a struggle just to get the local boys to adapt to the style of the game as we played 7s in the days. It took us a fair bit of time to get the boys to adapt to the rules.

"We had the skills, but the basics of the game took some time to know and follow.

"The governing of the sport back then was slow, but they picked up momentum as they worked together and it was hard to get the management of the game from people who had not played the game to be leading the organisation because it did not work. That's my point of view.

"I was honoured to be the captain of the Fiji Bati to our first Rugby League World Cup and that was in 1995 in England. We struggled to get to England because majority of the team was made up of local-based players who had never had international experience. There was only about five of us who had played in the NRL.

"This year almost all players are overseas-based. We have a good chance of playing in the quarter-finals after our pool games against USA, Wales and Italy.

"We can beat them by keeping it simple and playing from our strength and hanging on to the ball.

"We play to our strength by running the ball and spreading it out wide, I think that will be the winner for us."

Nalagilagi said the team in Australia had some of the best in the business.

With the right selection and teamwork, the Vodafone Fiji Bati could end the reign of superpowers Australia and England whom our national side had always succumbed to since his team which was managed by Master Epeli Lagiloa, who passed away recently.

Fiji plays USA tonight, Wales on November 5 also at Townsville and Italy in Canberra on Nov 10.

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