The power of Pasifika is in more than just catching a footy

featured, Pacific Islands, Rugby, Rugby Union, Super Rugby

It’s hard to believe there were only four players of Pacific Islander heritage in the starting line-ups when Australia launched into Super Rugby in 1996.

That’s only four players across three teams.

In any round of Super Rugby Pacific this season, the number will hover around 30 players or 40 per cent of all starters in Australia’s five teams.

As rugby fans, we have watched the rise of Pasifika rugby for far longer than the exciting addition of Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika to this year’s competition.

Impressive as they are, the greatest leap forward hasn’t been in the thrills when ogling at the power running of Rob Valetini or the athletic dynamism of Jordan Petaia.

It has been in those booming Pasifika player numbers translating to more leadership roles.

Samu Kerevi (Queensland Reds), Adam Coleman (Melbourne Rebels), Quade Cooper (Reds), Will Genia (Reds) and Christian Lealiifano (Brumbies) have filled captaincy roles in recent years while Allan Alaalatoa is proudly Brumbies skipper in 2022.

Allan Alaalatoa of the Brumbies

(Photo by Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)

Even if it was for just four minutes, Wallabies forward Lukhan Salakaia-Loto treasured the honour as Reds captain before he limped off against the Western Force last week.

The Queensland Rugby Union has added another layer of proud recognition for their Pasifika players who face the Drua at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday night.

In the middle of the chest, they will wear the flag of their Pasifika heritage on specially-struck jerseys. All will be auctioned to raise further funds for UNICEF Australia’s Tongan Recovery Appeal.

Taniela Tupou (Tonga), Seru Uru (Fiji), Kalani Thomas (Maori), Hunter Paisami (Samoa), Petaia (Samoa), Feao Fotuaika (Tonga), Zane Nonggorr (Papua New Guinea) and Tuaina Taii Tualima (Samoa) will share the flag honour.

“It means a lot, not just to me but all the Pacific Island boys in this team. It’s nice to play for our people back home and our families,” Wallaby centre Paisami said.

Backrower-lock Uru only arrived in Australia in 2017 as a 20-year-old to seek a pathway from tiny Namoli village that might turn rugby into a professional career.

He’s excited that young Fijians can now see that future in their own country through the Drua.

“I’m super-excited to play for the Queensland Reds but also represent my home country with the flag on my chest,” Uru said.

“It’s something I’ll always carry with me around the field that represents the people back home.

“I now get to face my home country team and players I played with in the Fijian Under-20s, like Meli Derenalagi, or against at high school.”

The dreadlocked Uru’s explosive pick-and-drives and link work have become a feature of the Reds. He hopes Wallabies boss Dave Rennie is watching too.

Reds duo Seru Uru (left) and Hunter Paisami show off the flags on their jerseys that will represent their heritage on Saturday night. (Photo: Brendan Hertel, QRU Media)

“My main goal is to don the yellow jersey and represent Australia,” he said.

Kerevi knew what impact it could have on youngsters to see Pacific Islanders in strong leadership roles in rugby.

“Hopefully, I’ve inspired some young Pacific Islander players,” Kerevi said when Reds captain in 2019.

“Obviously, a lot of Pacific Islander players who are quiet and from humble beginnings may think they are not made for a leadership role.

“I’d say ‘express yourself, extend yourself’ and I don’t mean just footy but with life in general to be a doctor, a teacher or whatever you want to be.”

It’s a shame Kerevi and others never got to meet the trailblazer Epi Bolawaqatabu before his death in Cairns in 2018.

His tongue-twister of a name was shortened to “Epi Bola” by teammates when he arrived at the Brothers club in Brisbane as a young dentistry student in the mid-1960s.

He made such an impact as a dynamic flanker with his running and ball-handling that he was swept into the Queensland side in 1967.

He went on to captain Fiji against Peter Sullivan’s 1972 Wallabies in Suva.

In his own words, he described his wide-roaming style: “You know the word ‘seagull’. I was a very famous seagull.”

His mark was as great off the field because he returned to Queensland in the 1980s to live and practice dentistry.

Linking with the Royal Flying Doctor Service, he worked for many years providing much-needed dental assistance for the under-privileged at Aboriginal settlements like Doomadgee and Lockhart River.

It was a great pleasure to speak with Bolawaqatabu in 2006 about rugby and dentistry in those settlements.

“I remember having someone in the chair one day who was under the influence. When he woke up, he had this strange look on his face,” Bola said.

“’You a dentist?’ he asked. ‘Why?’ I answered.

“’I thought dentists were white men,’ he said. Seeing me with the same skin colour took away fear for a lot of people I worked with.”

Jacob Rauluni (Reds), Daniel Manu (Waratahs), Ipolito Fenukitau (Brumbies) and Elisi Vunipola (Brumbies) really started something when they were the only Pacific Islanders in the run-on sides when Super 12 was born in 1996.

The role models in leadership and wider service to the community, beyond just catching a footy, are a powerful signpost for the future.

Leave a Reply