As the tour bus drives past a big green field, a group of kids are playing rugby league.
They’ve got a dusty looking ball. They throw it about, kick into the cool Nadi air, leap high and catch. About 30 children are milling about on this calm, humid evening. They wear faded singlets – purple, black, white, orange – and some wear shoes.
They love every minute of their impromptu Test match.
One throws a cut out pass that Benji Marshall would love. It hits the chest of a small kid, who grabs it and motors ahead of the group. His shrill cries of delight can still be heard over the noisy bus.
The sun is setting on another day in Fiji, one of rugby league’s growing nations, and my first impressions is that the sport is more than a minor blip on the nation’s consciousness. It’s also heading in a positive direction.
Only an hour earlier, I see a big billboard of the Fiji rugby union team at Nadi airport. They are proudly sponsored by Vodafone, it says. I come across two other advertisements for Fijian rugby – one asking for you to eat Fijian produce like the rugby team, the other about telecommunications.
As I pass a petrol station, I look up and notice a beaming Kevin Naiqama plus a couple of teammates on a large advertising board. Support the Bati!
Later than night I walk pass the hotel bar. What’s on TV that Saturday night? Three games of NRL. On Wednesday, there’s only one feature screening: State of Origin, Game 1.
After last week’s announcement, those kids in the park and countless others will be able to see their national side as early as October, when Fiji hosts Australia and Papua New Guinea at Suva’s ANZ Stadium in three 40-minute games.
🚨 Kangaroos, Fiji Bati and Papua New Guinea Kumuls to warm up for @RLWC2017 in Fiji.
— RLWC2017 (@RLWC2017) 25 May 2017
This series continues some of the excellent work the NRL has done with the island nations. Bati coach Mick Potter told League Passport the NRL go above and beyond in support of Fiji.
“The sport is growing here and in Fiji,” Potter says.
“The NRL does a great job in continuing to support their growth. Certainly the amount of Fijian players in the NRL at the moment is fantastic.”
Potter also confirmed the Bati will make a trip to Fiji before the World Cup.
“We will be spending time there, about 10 days pre-tournament, to spread and promote the game.”
It’s a wonderful time for Fiji rugby league.
Fiji’s bid to have a team in the New South Wales Cup is receiving tremendous support, with over 130,000 Facebook fans and 13,000 on Twitter.
— FIJI NSW Cup Bid (@FijiNSWCupBid) 21 May 2017
The island nation supplies 27 players to the NRL and Super League. With a population of less than 900,000, Fiji should be considered a superb rugby league nursery.
The group of kids continue to play long into the night. They disperse and walk to their homes, dreaming only of becoming the next Kevin Naiqama or Akuila Uate.
With more courageous decisions like these events from the NRL, in partnership with other nations, these kids – and Fiji – are getting an even greater chance to fall in love with rugby league for life.