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Rotuman Sports

From Fiji Times Online (19 October 2008)

Gabe and Maka relive rugby history

by Fred Wesley

From left: Gabriel Penjueli, Vaughan Antonio and Maka Kafoa at the Peninsula Hotel in Suva

Picture by: Fred Wesley

IT was one of those cool Suva Sundays, the sun struggling to inch its way out of clouds that hung heavily over the peninsula. A slight Easterly breeze crossed the pool at the aptly named Peninsula Hotel at the corner of Pender Street and McGregor Road. The threat of a drizzle had failed to keep us off pool side.

I'd just hooked up with the country's first two Rotumans to make it into the national fifteens rugby side.

Gabriel Penjueli was a 21-year-old hooker while Maka Kafoa was 20 when he made the national side as a lockforward in 1994. They'd made the team under coaches Meli Kurisaru and Brad Johnstone.

We'd crossed paths at the Rotuma sports competition over the Fiji Day weekend. Gabe played at hooker for his New Zealand Rotumans side, Maka played as a forward for Sarafui and I was a forward for Rae'sea.

The battle in the trenches was tough, but as the dust settled on Saturday, friendships were renewed, ignited and strengthened.

I'd crossed paths with Maka a number of times over the years, but the last time I'd seen Gabe was back in 2006.

So the meeting on Sunday was sort of a reunion for the three of us.

We'd lapped up the moment, taking a long walk down memory lane. In the background, in room 104, a party that had started in the wee hours of Sunday morning continued, the noise, laughter and boozing broken intermittently by revellers making the short walk across a little hedge to take a dip in the hotel's swimming pool. The party was still in the middle of joyful banter as the clock struck 6pm. The revellers had been at it for well over 12 hours and never looked like easing up.

International debut

Maka and Gabe made their debuts in the national side in 1994.

They were the first national rugby players to come from the tiny Pacific Island of Rotuma, which sits 465 kilometres North of Fiji.

Gabe was part of the squad that defeated Manu Samoa 20-13 on July 2, 1994 at Prince Charles Park in Nadi, under coach Brad Johnstone.

He earned a cap against Japan. Maka earned two caps. Samoa were on a high following an impressive effort at the 1991 Rugby World Cup where they'd defeated Wales 16-13, lost to Australia 3-9, and defeated Argentina 35-12 to advance through to the quarter-finals. Samoa succumbed to Scotland 6-28, coming off as the best placed team from the Pacific Islands. Fiji lost to Canada 3-13, lost to France 9-33, and lost to Romania 15-17 at the RWC and failed to make the next one in 1995.

I remember that Samoan team in 1994 had big names like Pita Fatialofa, Mata'afa Keenan, Sila Vaifale and Pat Lam in the pack. They had backs like Brian Lima, Anitelea Aiolupo, Toa Samania and To'o Vaega. They would go on to rock the RWC the very next year, beating Italy 42-18, beating Argentina 32-26, before going down to England 22-44. Samoa reached the quarter-finals where it lost to South Africa 14-42.

In the '94 clash, Fiji had big names like Joe Veitayaki at prop, Iferemi Tawake and Ilaitia Savai as the lockforwards and the big kicking Opeti Turuva and Joeli Vidiri in the backline.

It was a defining moment for the two 'green' youngsters.

"We were pretty young then. The atmosphere, the patriotic crowd, the noise, everyone cheering 'Go Fiji, go'... man ... it was awesome," Gabe smiles. He's relived that moment thousands of times in his mind. It still inches out goose-bumps.

"Flanker Sitiveni Matalulu was our hard man in the pack."

Matalulu the Nadi backrower was inspirational, lifting the moral of youngsters like Gabe.

"And the crowd ... man ... we were ready to put our lives on the line ... we'd have done anything for them that day ... they motivated us.

"You could see the passion in the eyes of the fans that day. They wanted us to beat Samoa and they were doing all the right things to motivate and inspire us."

The thousands of fans who spilled onto Prince Charles Park had stirred the very souls of the players. That day, big names in the Samoan pack meant nothing to a fresh faced hooker like Gabe. Samoa crashed, brought down to earth by a committed group of players who were urged on by thousands of screaming fans, and probably pissed off from being left out of the next RWC.

"I was fortunate to be part of that team," he says.

Big bad Brad

"Whatever anyone says about Brad, remember this ... Brad changed the face of Fiji rugby," Maka says. "He taught us how to close the rucks and mauls. He taught us what it meant to be in the pack. He changed the way we thought and played as forwards.

"He hated the idea of forwards picking up passes along the backline because he insisted on every forward doing his bit first in the set pieces.

"He demanded the best in the scrums, the rucks, mauls and lineouts. And you couldn't fool him."

Gabe agrees. "I will never forget the days when we had to do 110 scrums in one day. By the time we were done, my skin was stuck to my jersey, peeling off.

"I remember at one stage, Eminoni (Batimala - hooker) packed down for a scrum and scraped his ear on the scrum machine. He'd looked up at Brad ... blood streaming down the side of his head.

"Brad stared back at him, and barked, 'fix your angle, get your positioning right, and get back into that machine ... by the time we'd finished, there was blood all over Eminoni's face and jersey.

"Then there was the time when Brad felt we'd performed poorly in the rucks. The next day, the team had to go through live rucking the whole day ... nothing else but live rucking ... by the time we'd finished in the afternoon, everyone had torn shorts and jersies.

"Brad was cruel, but he taught us so much. I'm glad I had the opportunity to train under him."

Rotuman sports

Apart from being the first Rotumans to represent Fiji in rugby, Gabe, who hails from Motusa and Maka, a Juju man, share another common feature.

They believe there will always be a place for the Rotuma sports competitions in the hearts and minds of people of this far flung island.

"For me ... coming here wasn't easy," says Gabe who is an architectural sales consultant in Wellington.

"I had to fork out $1200. My wife wasn't keen, especially considering we have a mortgage to pay, bills and other stuff back home.

"But, I suppose it's about having the opportunity to meet my people, my relatives, and play rugby. Not many people can understand that."

It's a factor shared by Maka and Gabe's team mate Vaughan Antonio, a Noatau man, who was on his second trip here.

"Like Gabe said, it's about meeting people, getting to know other Rotumans and playing against them," Vaughan says.

The future

Both Gabe and Maka are proud to be recognised as the first Rotumans to don the national rugby colours. They believe RWC hero Graham Dewes is carrying on a trend that can be emulated by a young upcoming pool of talented Rotumans.

"There are talented players out there. We have a number of players plying their trade in New Zealand who can make the grade," Gabe says.

"I think it's about nurturing them now and guiding them.

"Me and Maka ... well ... we were pretty unfortunate in the sense that we never really had anyone guiding us back then. Hopefully the young crop of players coming up now will be better prepared for a national call-up."

In the face of the Suva night sky, the sounds of joy in the background, of a partying crowd, the two big men sit on chairs facing the hotel pool, each deep in thought, probably pondering what may have been.

Their dance with fame ended a couple of years ago. But deep inside their hearts sit yearnings for a better and brighter future for Fiji rugby.

In the deepest recesses of their minds, there is a dream - one that sees talented Rotumans making the national side, putting their lives on the line.

Right now, Graham is carrying the hopes and aspirations of every Rotuman. Maka, Vaughan and Gabe all acknowledge that fact.