The Drua mania | Ancient art meets modern rugby

Swire Shipping Fijian Drua players perform the i-bole before their Super Rugby match against the Queensland Reds at the HFC Bank Stadium in Suva on Saturday, June 03, 2023. Picture: JONACANI LALAKOBAU

From an ancient vessel to a modern rugby team—now the name Drua is synonymous with the sporting pride of Fiji as a nation.

The team has smashed, pulverized, outrun and scored their way to the quarterfinals of the Super Rugby Pacific and the crazy euphoria this has produced has even eclipsed the significance of our poor performing sevens rugby fraternity.

What exactly does the drua represent? The drua, or twin hulled ship, was the biggest, fastest and most sophisticated oceangoing sailing machine of its era which the National Geographic referred to with great admiration as the “Dreadnought of the Pacific.”

The “Dreadnought,” built in 1906, was the first modern British battleship which revolutionized modern naval warfare.

In the early days, the drua was a naval vessel which could carry up to 300 warriors.

It was a symbol of political conquest, also of making inter-tribal connections, alliances and peace.

People could actually live on a drua for days and weeks—it was a floating village and fortress at the same time.

The drua was more superior in many ways than many seagoing vessels the Europeans had produced around the 1700s and 1800s hundreds.

For those of you visiting the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa you may want to check out the comparative chart of the drua and Captain Cook’s Endeavour which historical experts have produced and exhibited.

The drua came out superior in all the indicators provided—for instance, while the drua was able to sail at a speed of 15 knots and above (30-40 km per hr), the Endeavour could only do 4.5 knots (8-9 km per hr); the drua could carry up to 200 people or more compared to the Endeavour’s 100.

There are aspects of the drua we do not talk about— it was the epitome of applied Fijian scientific innovation.

I was once invited by the Director of the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch some years ago to inspect some Pacific artefacts and the conversation turned to how the museum would like to acquire a large drua model to help preserve Fijian heritage.

My response was that beyond just preservation of past cultural artefacts, I was really interested in the level of technical knowledge and scientific innovation which went into building the mighty drua.

For instance, transforming a huge vesi tree into planks and then putting them together to form a strong and coherent structure needed very accurate measurements, highly skilled workmanship and highly sophisticated mental design and logistical planning.

To make the drua operational and sea-worthy a number of scientific principles had to be applied.

Firstly was synthesis of geometrical symmetry and force equilibrium to get the balance right and ensure stability in rough weather, something modern ships struggle with.

The second was how to minimize resistance and maximize speed through the streamline design—again the Endeavour and other European ships at the time seriously lacked this.

European ships rode on waves while the drua simply sliced through them like modern destroyers.

Thirdly was the principle of aerodynamics which involved the shaping and configuration of the sail mechanism to ensure that the drua could sail into the wind at high speed.

This was based on some understanding of the principle of aerodynamics, even before the word itself was invented in the mid-1800s.

European ships could only sail slowly and clumsily with the wind.

The innovative drua design, which provided stability and minimised risks of sinking, was later copied by European naval architects to design catamarans, which are widely used today.

The scientific innovation behind the drua design has been largely lost and there is a need to re-explore and revive these to counter the contemporary prejudice and stereotypes that Pacific people do not have scientific innovation in their arsenal of knowledge base.

So drua as a naval vessel represented the innovative maritime culture of the largest and most advanced oceanic civilization in the world at the time.

The early Pacific people voyaged across the Pacific from the west towards the east using sophisticated navigational skills and now there is genetic and cultural evidence to show that they sailed as far as South America, well before Columbus, introduced coconut and brought back kumala (sweet potato) which is now a staple food across the Pacific, including New Zealand.

The Drua rugby spirit: Strength, adventure and innovation

Thus the history of the drua is also the story of power, resilience, scientific innovation, trans-oceanic conquest, discovery, endless horizon, speed and people to people connections.

Will our Drua rugby team live up to its formidable name? Translating an ancient symbol of power to the modern game of rugby is in itself a form of mental innovation.

As sociologists will say, rugby is not just a game but also a representation of social values, expectations and worldviews.

The Drua team has a few things to demonstrate and prove. Firstly is to smash the perception about the rugby tier system which assumes that Tier 2 nations such as Fiji are not good enough compared to Tier 1 countries such as New Zealand and Australia.

In subconscious ways, this has links to the colonial thinking about societal and racial ranking which has been prevalent for centuries.

Secondly is to redefine and also nullify the simplistic perception embedded in the mainstream binary and static thinking about the “structured” versus “unstructured” rugby.

This dichotomy, often pushed by mainstream rugby experts and commentators, casts Fijian rugby as unstructured and thus unsophisticated.

The reality is much more complex and nuanced and they cannot fathom the fact that structures can be mobile, subtle and not necessarily visible in the form of scrums or lineouts.

Through sevens, Fijian rugby has developed highly mobile structures based on individual skills in motion rather than predictable and static structured moves.

Now other teams are learning how the Fijian mobile structures are important for scoring tries and winning games and have adapted to these as part of the modern game, without admitting that they actually copied the Fijian style.

Thirdly, it is time to showcase innovative rugby styles such as fancy passes and offloads which were once considered taboo in the early days of mainstream rugby.

Rugby in New Zealand, Australia and the Northern Hemisphere relied on “textbook tactics” for coaching skills in passing, catching, kicking etc and the Fijian one hand, back hand and underhand passes displayed in sevens were seen as unorthodox and in fact considered to be rugby sins.

But today everyone has copied these fancy Fijian rugby behaviour but again without acknowledging the origin.

Lastly, Drua will bring all of Fiji’s ethnic and cultural groups and people together perhaps more than any political party or politician has ever done in a spirit of frenzied patriotism.

Let’s imagine that we are all sailing in this huge drua smashing through the waves at high speed, exploring and connecting—oh and conquering the Crusaders.

• PROFESSOR STEVEN RATUVA is a Christchurch-based Crusaders fan who changed loyalty to Drua since it joined the Super Rugby Pacific competition.

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