The ‘Panthers tale’
22 May, 2023, 12:10 pm
Ever since rugby league was first being introduced to Fiji, only a handful of local clubs have been around since then. One of these clubs is the Nadera Panthers.
The Panthers was first formed in 1992 — the year rugby league was brought into the country, and is currently the cup holder for the Fiji National Rugby League Vodafone Cup after a hiatus of 11 years.
Out of the competition’s 30-year existence in Fiji, the Panthers hold the record for the most wins with a total of 15/30 win, having created an impressive six-year-streak in two occasions.
But behind all the glamour and glory, little is known to the rugby league committee, fans and supporters around this rugby mad nation on the journey the Panthers have taken to be able to carve their names as one of the most successful teams in this competition.
A fellow founder of the Panthers and current coach, Vula Dakuitoga, was more than willing to share the “Panthers tale” of how the club was formed when quizzed by The Fiji Times which led to an interview being conducted at his Nadera home.
“One Sunday in 1992, a close relative of mine, Etuate Waqa, had contacted me asking if I wanted to sit down with him and have a chat over a few beers,” the Cakaudrove native shared.
Little did Dakuitoga know that Waqa had called him specifically to discuss his idea of forming a rugby league club in Nadera.
Bear in mind that during the 1980-1900s, though there were a number of rugby players being poached to play league overseas, it was against the code of the Fiji Rugby Union for any union player to play league at all.
“So he shared with me his idea of starting a club in Nadera. This came as a shock to me because there were no league competitions in Fiji and even I myself knew nothing of the game.”
Dakuitoga came to find out that idea forming a club was help interested players securing overseas contracts in the 13-man game.
“I was hesitant to go forward with this idea because I was playing union at the time.
“I later found out that he and a few other players were secretly training in Deuba,” he shared laughingly.
Dakuitoga represented the Rewa Colts from 1985 to 1989, a rugby union club that was part of the Air Pacific Cup, where other provincial teams such as Nadroga, Suva and Nadi would participate.
The first national rugby league squad was formed in 1992 by Ben O’Connor, a Nausori businessman and Cullen Kamea and a fee of $3000 was paid for forming the national side.
The squad participated in the Rugby League World 7s in Australia where a mass offer of contracts were given to majority of the Fiji players.
All rugby union players who had converted to league were banned from playing union in Fiji.
“Waqa, along with six other high-profile rugby union players had converted to rugby league and joined the national squad in competing at the Rugby League World 7s that was held in Australia.”
“They were also banned by Fiji Rugby Union after converting.”
Later that year, a six-team rugby league competition formed by Australian Rugby League was introduced to Fiji.
“It was these six players that converted to rugby league who founded the six teams that went on to compete in the ARL, with Waqa and I forming the Nadera Panthers — which was originally called Cup Track Tigers.”
In search of players for their newly-formed club, Dakuitoga sought help from a cousin, Ilaitia Naqau and older brother Tuiloma Dakuitoga.
“So we agreed to form the club and called it the Cup Track Tigers, because our sponsor at the time was Cup Track Garage, a garage company in Suva at the time.” After competing in the RLW7s, Waqa received a contract and went on to play for a club in Darwin, Australia.
“Our first go at the competition did not go well as we expected, we were demolished but decided to stay in the game.”
In a bid to attract more players and clubs to join, the ALR would pay each team in the competition $40 per win and $10 per loss.
When the ARL was being introduced to Fiji, it was being run by Australian nationals Mike Denis, Ted and Mary Johnson, or as Dakuitoga remembers. Dakuitoga was also part of the national squad the competed at the Rugby League World Sevens in 1993 but did not stray from his commitment to the Nadera Club.
In 1999, Cup Track Garage refused to continue sponsoring the Nadera Cub which left Dakuitoga worried on how the club would be funded.
“I went to Dee Cee’s Buses Services Ltd and asked the owner, Diwan Chand, if he was willing to sponsor our club.”
At the time, there was a 9s tournament being held in Nadi that featured local clubs and a few overseas club as well.
“Chand said that if we were able to win the competition in Nadi, he would sponsor us in whatever we needed whether; it was jerseys, transport or whatever.”
The Nadera side was still called the Cup Track Tigers and took two teams to the competition — Nadera Whites and Nadera Blacks. Driven by the desperation of a new sponsor and love for the sport, both teams demolished all their opponents in the competition and ended up reaching the final against each other.
Chand of Dee Cee’s was so impressed with the Cup Track Tigers performance that he promised he would sponsor the club as long as he lived.
“He told me, Vula, as long as I am still around, I will sponsor you.”
And that was how the club changed its name from the Cup Track Tigers to Dee Cee’s Nadera Panthers until today. Chand continued to sponsor the club until he passed away in February, 2012, even so, Dee Cee’s continued to sponsor the club to this day.
“His children who run Dee Cee’s have continued what their father has done in sponsoring the Panthers.”
Ever since the club was founded, Dakuitoga has played and coached the team. He last represented the Panthers in 2011 at the Fiji National Rugby League Vodafone Cup where the Panthers last lifted the Vodafone Cup — he was 47-years-old. Since then, he has continued to coach the Panthers.
Over the years, players from the Panthers have received contracts and have travelled overseas playing rugby league.
“Just seeing these players come back to Fiji with a family, being able to support themselves is something that brings me peace.”
On the future plans for the club, he said he hoped that one day the club would be able to pay their players so they would at least have something to take back home to their families.
“We also hope to pull youths off the streets and get them involved in something positive where they can make a life for themselves.”
The Panthers won their first title in 1993, had a six-year-in-arow win in 1993-98 and again in 2003-2008.