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League on the rise

Thursday, November 02, 2017

RUGBY Union may be the national sport of Fiji, but rugby league is quickly becoming just as popular around the island nation.

That is according to Vodafone Fiji Bati captain Kevin Naiqama who has seen first-hand rugby league's rapid rise in popularity over a relatively short time span.

Naiqama, who has played 12 Tests for his country, believes the turning point came in 2008 when Fiji travelled to the World Cup in Australia and put together their best ever finish.

The Bati made the semi-finals of that tournament, following it up with another semi-final showing in 2013, and based on their 58-12 demolition of the USA in Week 1 of this year's World Cup, a third semi-final appearance in a row is very much a possibility.

This continued success has seen the profile of the sport continue to grow, and there are now plans for a Fijian side to enter the NSW Cup in 2019.

If that were to happen it would mean everything to Naiqama and his Fijian teammates, many of whom can recall the days where no one in Fiji even knew what the rugby league team looked like.

"Rugby league is growing in Fiji. Rugby league was an unknown when the boys played in the 2008 world cup.

"Nobody in Fiji knew about rugby league. That was back when my brother (Wes Naiqama) was playing and captaining the side," Kevin said.

"'Haynesy' (Jarryd Hayne) was telling us stories about how they would walk down the street before the tournament began and no one would recognise them due to the heavy presence of rugby union.

"But when they got back from that world cup everyone knew who they were, people were coming up to them on the streets.

"That's when it all began and it has continued to grow over the last eight years.

"There is now a lot of it played in Fiji and they know all of us when we go back home.

"It's big now and I hope we can continue to help the game grow."

The game has certainly come a long way since Wes first introduced the Naiqama name to Fijian rugby league and with Wes now retired; Kevin is looking to continue his brother's legacy.

Kevin, who often shed tears during the national anthem of his country, believes playing for Fiji is about doing your family, country and heritage proud.

"My brother and I are very close.

"We played together at the 2013 World Cup and our family was really proud," he said.

"Putting on this jersey is the pinnacle. It doesn't get any better than this. Representing your country is the highest honour you can receive.

"To represent my family and my friends is something I hold very close to my heart. And also to receive the captaincy role is an amazing honour as well. I hope I can do my country proud."

Kevin is set to feature prominently when Fiji take on Wales in their second match of the World Cup this weekend.

A win at Townsville Stadium on Sunday would see the Bati take a strong hold of top position in Group D.

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