Sunday 24 September 2017 / 06:04 AM

MAKE WAY FOR THE FLYING FIJIANS

The lightbulb moment hit following a brief discussion a few years ago at a downtown motel in ‘Australia’s Beef Capital’, Rockhampton, Queensland.

Metro Motel owner Greg Browne, a former local coach and a talent scout for the Penrith Panthers in a previous life, was in his office when Rod Davies Senior (father of former Wallabies and Queensland Reds outside back Rod Davies) walked in.

“Rod (who has family connections in Fiji) walked into my office one day and said he was tired of trying to bring Fijians into the country and I should start a side like the Papua New Guinea (PNG) Hunters in the Queensland Cup. He said he couldn’t do it but I could. Then he walked out,” Browne explains to Commentary Box Sports.

The extraordinary success of the PNG Hunters, who will play in their first InTrust Super Cup grand final later this month in just their fourth season in the competition, was the inspiration to start the process of getting a Fiji InTrust Super Premiership (NSW Cup) bid up and running.

“What the Hunters have done paves the way for more Pacific teams to be considered in growing the game in the region and I believe it is a must for our game moving forward. The Pacific island player numbers are around a phenomenal 45% in the NRL,” Browne says enthusiastically.

Browne was able to move ahead on the bid courtesy of NRL figures. One high-profile Fijian and Australian rugby league identity has had a major impact so far.

“Neale Wyatt, a former Brisbane Broncos player, stayed at my motel. I told him my shortfall was my reduced ability to open doors in Fiji. Neale told me to give former Kangaroo and Fiji international Petero Civoniceva a call and a new partnership emerged.

“Petero is the key to bringing this dream to reality, his patience and drive continues even after such a long, drawn-out process, I call him the frustrated five-eighth because his intelligence and business acumen are well above a perceived front-rower’s,” Browne jokes.

The interest back in Fiji, thanks to the work of co-coordinator Civoniceva, is high and rising rapidly according to Browne.

“Interest is high among the sporting fraternity and extremely hopeful in villages across the country.

“Athletes and their families would love nothing more than a pathway program that allows their talent to make it from home and not have to take the risky path of going overseas to clubs that may not have the player’s best interest at heart.

“Many kids have fallen prey to dodgy managers and clubs promising much but delivering little.”

The bid team recently celebrated acquiring 195,000 social media followers – a credit to the hard work and enthusiasm of the team’s media consultant and IT coordinator Joel Morgan.

It is obvious that the governing body of international rugby union see the bid as a threat to their position in Fiji. While rugby union is the clear number one sport on the islands, World Rugby have gained the ‘jump’ on rugby league by co-financing a team with Fiji Rugby – known as the Fiji Drua – to play in the Australian National Rugby Championship (NRC) this season.

When the announcement was made last year dual international Lote Tuqiri summed up the feeling.

“World Rugby’s probably moved on the threat of rugby league,” he said to Fox Sports.

“I know that there’s a NSW rugby league team, that there’s an imminent threat that they’re going to play and have a team out of there, but rugby’s got first bite of the cherry, so to speak, and they’re having a go.”

Browne remains pragmatic about rugby union firing the first shot.

“Depends how you look at it, we certainly got a major reaction from World Rugby who backed the ARU and FRU.

“Not having to source the funding to pay for yours and visitor teams to play makes it relatively easy. We on the other hand have a full 26 round season to fund and fulltime professional club to build from scratch.

“Make no mistake they want to maintain their dominance in the Pacific and are asking for FRU to do a feasibility study for entry into the Super Rugby so in this respect yes they have got the jump.”

Anyone who has watched the Fijian Rugby Sevens team – the Rio Olympic gold medalists – or the current batch of NRL players of Fijian heritage would be aware of their unique attacking abilities.

Fijians players have made their mark on the rugby league scene in Australia for many years.

The late Apisai Toga switched from Fiji rugby union to play with St George via Rochdale Hornets in the late-1960s and early-1970s.

Wingers Noa Nadruku (Canberra) and Lote Tuqiri (Brisbane, Wests Tigers and Souths) and are two notable former players that entertained fans with speed, power and skill.

Current Fijian NRL entertainers include, among many others, Semi Radradra, Suliasi Vunivalu, Akuila Uate, Kevin Naiqama, Apisai Koroisau, Jason Bukuya and Jarryd Hayne, who had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it stint with the Fiji Rugby Sevens squad in between his NFL experience with the San Francisco 49ers and subsequent return to the NRL.

Fiji has an international standard stadium in Suva (ANZ National Stadium) and domestic competitions that include junior and women’s teams, as well as a strong men’s league.

Browne points out that NSW Rugby League General Manager of Football and dual code international Barrie Jon (BJ) Mather has provided great support.

“He sees the vision and the possible huge impact for the NSW Cup,” Browne says.

“We are very hopeful and will know (the outcome) for sure in a few weeks. We have had six NRL clubs show us interest in becoming either feeder teams or have a development relationship so I think we are a strong chance but we just need a few more financial backers.”

A Fijian team would spark interest in the second tier NSW Cup competition in the same way that the Toronto Wolfpack has after a successful first season in Britain’s Rugby Football League (RFL) third tier League One Championship.

Meanwhile, rugby league fans can sit back and watch Radradra and Vunivalu light up stadiums in the NRL finals series, while in late-October the Fiji Bati team, coached by Mick Potter, will battle it out in the 2017 Rugby League World Cup.

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About the author

Stuart McLennan

Stuart McLennan is a freelance writer and media manager with a passion for all sports and an obsession with the rugby codes. Currently based in Athens, Greece Stuart is enjoying watching rugby league develop internationally while keeping a close eye on the NRL. Stuart likes to scratch below the surface of the game and its personalities with interviews and opinion.

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