Tenacious – that’s Te Rabuli

AS we look forward to more exciting sevens rugby this season, this column would like to highlight the contribution and sacrifice of one of the pioneers of the game, who now rests in peace at a breezy hill in his village in Wailevu East, Cakaudrove.

With Hong Kong and Singapore on the radar — the Commonwealth Games underway and the Melrose Cup in August, we take a look back at the life of a slightly-built, soft-spoken man with a big heart called Tevita Rabuli. (This story is an updated one of which I wrote for the Daily Post when Rabuli died on October 31, 1997 and left behind his wife and three children).

If you are named after David in the Bible, it would come as no surprise that it would be a motivational tool used to conquer the Goliath you face in life and Tevita Rabuli was such.

His choice of a position of second-five or inside centre in provincial and the national 15s team, a place reserved only for big, tough, broad shouldered ruggers — said everything of the mettle of the man.

Rabuli was already a veteran national rugby player in the full 15s code when he represented Fiji in 7s to Hong Kong in the inaugural tournament in 1976 with Qele Ratu, Isoa Makutu, Tui Cavuilati, Taito Rauluni, Viliame Ratudradra, Josefa Rauto, Tomu Jani and coach/player Ilaitia Tuisese.

He returned with Ratu and Tuisese in 1977, when Fiji first won the tournament and later became Fiji Sevens manager/coach in 1982 and 1983. His 1982 side was captained by Rewa’s Lepani Tagicakibau and they lost 6-10 to Australia in the semi-final.

Australia beat Scottish Borders 18-14 in the final and in 1983 his team captained by Nadi’s Esala Labalaba lost to Australia in the final 4-14.

Rabuli was one of the men with a medium stature just like his Cakaudrove kin and current Fiji Sevens skipper Jerry Tuwai, but Tuwai has had the advantage of modern strength and conditioning where weight training builds body mass and he has grown to be a solidly built customer to survive the hard knocks in the modern game.

In Rabuli’s days there was no weight training as such and rugby men just ran, fuelled by their passion and love for the oval ball game and be gutsy enough in physical confrontation to tackle their opponents down.

What Rabuli lacked in size he made up with other rugby attributes like shrewdness, tenacity and guts.

He was a champion schoolboy middle distance runner at Lelean Memorial School and when he was selected in 1976 he quickly fitted into fellow workmate Ilaitia Tuisese’s team as he was a naturally gifted sevens player where speed was the trademark.

Before that he began his provincial representative rugby in Rewa while he was a student at the Fiji School of Agriculture in Koronivia.

When he joined the then Native Land Trust Board he was posted to Sigatoka in 1972 and immediately became a hero in the rugby crazy province.

Nadroga had just won the Farebrother-Sullivan trophy from Nadi in 1971 and Rabuli, for a couple of years was one of the men who defended the trophy before moving back to work in Nausori in 1975. His teammates defended the trophy successfully for nine years.

When he arrived in rugby town in 1972, he thrived under the gruelling rugby training of Adriu Nadredre, who trained his rugby men such as a breeder trained thoroughbreds and in 1972 he represented Fiji — making his debut in the Test against Tonga at Nukualofa.

The emblem on the white Nadroga jersey was a lion and this was later changed into a stallion. You had to be lion-hearted to earn that jersey in the heart of rugby land where only the fittest survived, reps are treated such as demigods but where you become a victim of unscrupulous rugby “butchers” if you showed signs of weakness. Rabuli survived and even flourished to hold that second-five position for Nadroga and for Fiji for years.

The Cakaudrove man was a crafty rugby player playing in the toughest positions in the backline at second-five and sometimes centre. That’s where you get the brunt of the opposition attack, whether the forwards peeled off from lineouts and scrums, mauls targeting to bulldoze through you or just come face to face with opposition inside centres, the hardest runners and usually the toughest men to bring down in full flight.

Rabuli remained there and his opponents found out the real meaning of the words tenacity and doggedness when they tried to run through or around him. In attacks Rabuli slipped through the slightest of gaps with deft footwork and quick turn of speed to set up teammates and his other attacking tool was the grubber kick to get him or wingers past opposition defence.

1973 was to be the year that Fijian rugby flourished and Rabuli played for Fiji in the narrow 21-19 loss to Australia at Buckhurst Park, 3-6 loss to the New Zealand Maoris in Lautoka and 4-6 loss in Suva and the 13-12 loss to England at Buckhurst Park. Fiji, led by Meli Kurisaru were pipped at the post against England.

The same team later in the year toured Wales, England Ireland and Canada.

The team included Josaia Visei (Lautoka), Pio Bosco Tikoisuva (vice-captain) (Suva), Vuniani Varo (Nadi), Ravuama Latilevu (Nadroga), Tevita Rabuli (Nadroga), Luke Namadila (Nadroga), Wame Gavidi (Nadroga), Dan Lobendahn (Nadroga), Isimeli Batibasaga (Nadroga), Ilaitia Tuisese (Rewa), Isikeli Cagilaba (Ba), Meli Kurisaru (Captain, Nadroga), Rodney Samuels (Suva), Jope Naucabalavu Junior (Suva), Apenisa Tokairavua (Lautoka), Nasivi Ravouvou (Nadi), Jona Qoro (Nadi), Peter Hughes (Nadroga), Nimilote Ratudina (Suva), Atonio Racika (Suva), Rupeni Qaraniqio (Nadroga).

The team was officiated by two Nadroga doctors from Suva coach Dr Epi Bolawaqatabu and Dr Apenisa Kurisaqila was manager.

In 1976 Rabuli was also a member of the national team that toured Australia and in 1978 and 1979 he was replaced by his Nadroga teammate Senitiki Nasave in Hong Kong.

It was also at Sigatoka where his rugby career ended when he played for Rewa against Nadroga in 1979. Knowing his devastating capabilities his former teammates marked him closely and he was injured in a tackle. He had to be operated on the head in hospital to let the blood flow out.

He returned to Lautoka to continue working for NLTB and was vice/president of Nadroga Rugby Union when he died in Nadi hospital in 1997.

Our national sevens reps preparing for important assignments in the next couple of weeks and especially the Commonwealth Games in April, have gone far beyond those early years when national players played with borrowed boots, some heavily patched up. In later years in the nineties the only allowance was $5 a day which paid for laundry.

But they played with passion, guts and sacrificed for their friends, families and country. Fijians have a habit of rising to the occasion but it takes more than that in the following days, weeks and months.

Readiness is All, William Shakespear said.

One cannot dig deep into one’s resources to produce on game day what he had not accumulated in preparation. The early morning training, the repetitious drills to perfect moves and the “all-ears” and focus when the coach and team officials give advice on all aspects physically, mentally and spiritually.

Some things have changed. The rugby rules and equipment may be state of the art, the television coverage has turned ruggers to showman and win at all cost approach can produce arrogance and unsportsman-like behaviour.

That guy from Wailevu East will never again offer verbal advice, but we can learn a lot from his character of humility, sacrifice, tenacity and gutsy attitude as they spoke volumes of the champion he was.

They would be vital ingredients for our players in the challenges ahead.

Such things never change.