Fiji Three find home on the rugby field

A trio from Fiji bring their formidable rugby skills to the Port Alberni Black Sheep Rugby Club.

With the snow-covered Black Sheep playing field behind them

As huge as hockey is in Canada, its popularity pales compared to rugby’s role in Fijian culture.

“Bigger than hockey (is in Canada),” Anare (Jack) Rokotuiwakaya insisted in an interview at the Port Alberni Black Sheep clubhouse at the end of Argyle Street.

“Everyone plays rugby (in Fiji),” explained Rokotuiwakaya.

“They’re not focusing on any other sports.

“When we were kids, we’d play rugby. Then a bunch of guys said, ‘Let’s go play volleyball.’ We made fun of them.”

Rokotuiwakaya’s first cousins Peceli Leweni and Asaeli Rokotuiwakaya also play for the Black Sheep. All three are from the same village, which is 125 kilometres from the Fijian capital Suva. Among Fiji’s population of about 900,000, approximately 80,000 (nine per cent) are registered rugby players.

As Fiji is composed of 333 South Pacific islands, boats are the most popular method of travel. Fishing is a common occupation, and the thing that brought the Black Sheep’s Fijians to Vancouver Island.

Jack arrived first as a commercial fisherman, got married in Victoria and played rugby there.

“I played against the Port Alberni team one year, and thought it was a pretty good bunch of guys,” he recalled.

Finding Victoria living costs expensive, he and his wife moved up Island. The Black Sheep were a real drawing card to bring them to the Alberni Valley.

As the captain of a fishing boat, Jack hired Peceli and Asaeli, so they followed him across the Pacific to Port Alberni. Jack said he and his cousins found some similarities between their home village and Port Alberni.

“That’s why we like it here; it’s similar,” commented Jack, who did most of the talking for his cousins.

“It’s a little town.”

Referencing a close-knit, small-town feeling and team camaraderie, Jack mentioned that most Black Sheep players come to his house sometimes and share a traditional non-alcoholic Fijian drink.

“Same as back home; you’re on a team, everyone looks after each other,” Jack said, adding that same bond was not present on the Victoria team.

Black Sheep coach Jas Purewal praises Jack for his courage and dedication, Peceli for strength and intelligence, and Asaeli for constantly improving in his rookie season here.

Purewal, awarded a Sports Hero Award by Sport BC earlier this month, loves the respectful attitude and camaraderie the Fiji Three bring to the squad.

“There are guys who play for the Black Sheep and then there’s Black Sheep players,” Purewal summarized.

A strong fourth in the Vancouver Island Rugby Union (VIRU) Division One fall standings with a 5-2-1 record, the Sheep upended the first-place Norsemen 39-26 in a December semi-final.

Port Alberni trailed badly at halftime, said Jack, who sat out the game with an injury.

“What I saw was some guys from a little town that got courage involved,” he recalled.

“UVic thought they had it and then they started getting beaten on tackles, and the guys were really physical.”

Port Alberni blanked the host Cowichan Piggies 13-0 in Duncan in the VIRU Times-Colonist Cup final on a rainy, windy day.

The Piggies visit the Black Sheep on Jan. 23 and 24 as Vancouver Island Rugby Union (VIRU) Division One spring games begin.

What is the attraction of rugby?

“It’s a tough sport, but I like it,” Peceli responded.

“It makes you strong.”

Jack appreciates the team aspects of the sport.

“You learn new things from other players. It’s not just you in the field. It’s not all about yourself.”

Jack recommends rugby and hockey for young people.

“When you’re young, you get frustrated … and that’s the place you get your frustration out, on the rugby field. You can test yourself and see how tough you are.”

Since church on Sundays is a big deal in largely Catholic Fiji, Saturday is the huge rugby day there, meaning rugby and hockey have at least one thing in common.

Canadian weather and Fijian weather, however, are not alike.

Staring out at the snow-covered Black Sheep playing field, the Fijian trio was asked if it ever snowed in Fiji.

“No,” they shuddered in unison. “We’re still trying to adapt,” Jack admitted.

 

Mark Allan has been a journalist for more than 30 years, the past 14 on Vancouver Island.

 

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