Rugby Union: Slick Serevi refuses to be typecast

Chris Hewett reports on the Fijian who aims to prove the doubters wrong when he plays for Leicester in the Allied Dunbar Premiership season, which starts tomorrow
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The Independent Online
Delusions, fallacies, misconceptions. Waisale Serevi, the Fijian maestro whose unique gifts of mastery and mystery mark him so obviously as a rugby player of rare genius, tries hard to disguise his exasperation as he gives the lie to yet another of the received wisdoms that follow him around like a ball and chain, but a minute narrowing of the eyes and pursing of the lips give the game away.

He has heard them all a million times over, yet still they have the capacity to frustrate. "Serevi is a sevens player and no more; he can't play fifteens." "Serevi is too small to mix it with the big boys. He'll be found out when he gets caught in a ruck or two." "Serevi can only play when the sun is beating down. He'll be like a block of ice come January." Given that the 29-year-old from Suva can count his English appearances on the fingers of one hand, Joe Public seems to know an awful lot about his shortcomings.

We'll take the insolent presumptions one by one, then. Sevens and only sevens? "Mmmm, I think you'll find he can play whatever game of rugby you ask him to play," says Bob Dwyer, the Leicester coach who has brought the Brilliant One to Welford Road on a two-year deal that effectively begins tomorrow, when the Tigers take on Gloucester in their opening Allied Dunbar Premiership set-to of the new season. "If a player of real talent could do it in sevens but not fifteens, you'd have to look at the coach. I might be putting myself up there to be shot at, but I don't think I'm risking my backside on this one."

Too small, then? "Small? You're joking," scoffs Dwyer. "He's built like a brick outhouse. Have you seen those thighs? Those forearms? I doubt if there's a player at Leicester with better muscular definition."

Okay, how about the inclement weather? Serevi is more than happy to answer this one himself. "I've just played through three Japanese winters and I know all about snow," he points out. "I admit to feeling the cold during the World Cup sevens at Murrayfield in '93, but even the New Zealanders were moaning that weekend. It was freezing." Then Dwyer chips in again. "They turn out on absolute mudheaps in Fiji, you know. Either that or on something resembling concrete. He'll be fine, I promise you."

The proof of this particular pudding will be in the playing, of course. Serevi has been selected on the wing tomorrow - ask Dwyer which wing and he replies, only half-joking: "Whichever wing he likes" - so it is perfectly possible that he will be starved of the oxygen of possession and left to kick his heels a la Rory Underwood in all those one-dimensional Leicester sides of none-too-distant memory. He does not anticipate asphyxiation by boredom, however. "In Fiji, I was without the ball for many years. The Leicester forwards win quality ball and if I see some of it, who knows?"

Who indeed, for Serevi is capable of anything. He can play full-back, wing, centre, outside-half or even scrum-half, he is a goalkicker of Test class and possesses a sidestep, a body swerve, a hitch-kick and a double shuffle of such baffling superiority that it is no exaggeration to describe him as a cross between David Campese and Harry Houdini. Oh yes, he's quick, too. Devastatingly quick.

Rugby has been the instinctive street sport for generations of Fijian children and Serevi began playing as a 10-year-old. "I was always small compared to the rest, at least in terms of height," he admits, conscious of his 5ft 4in frame. But his extraordinary ability as a ball-player registered almost immediately and in the late 1980s he embarked on his golden run at the annual Hong Kong Sevens - a tournament he bestrides like some miniature colossus.

"I haven't missed a Hong Kong tournament since '89 - I suppose it is my stage and I love the excitement of the tournament," he says. "But my great ambition is to represent Fiji in the 1999 World Cup and I don't really care where they pick me. Wing, full-back, stand-off, anywhere will do. As a country, we need to reclaim our tradition in 15-a-side rugby and with Mr Brad Johnstone coaching us [endearingly, he never refers to the former All Black prop without the prefix "Mr"], I believe we can achieve great things in that direction.

"In Fiji, as in the other south seas island, the grass is always greener for young, ambitious players. They see more lucrative pastures, more money, in New Zealand and Australia and I don't blame them for leaving. We are a small country and it has been damaging for us, but now we are bringing people back to Fiji and beginning to translate our sevens successes to the bigger game. We beat Western Samoa by 60 points last season. Some of the Fijians who played that day still cannot believe it happened, but it did. We're getting there."

Serevi has headed Leicester's "wanted" list for more than a year. At the end of the 1995-96 season, he turned out against the Tigers in a World XV showpiece match at Twickenham and was approached by Peter Wheeler, the chief executive at Welford Road. "I'd been living in Kyoto and playing for Mitsubishi, but I knew of Leicester and their reputation. The offer was good, so here I am."

He will soon be joined by his wife Kara, a welfare official attached to a United Nations military hospital in Sinai, and their two daughters, Una and Asinate, aged three and two respectively. If Leicester win their prolonged battle to equip another Fijian, the spectacularly effective World Cup sevens wing Marika Vunibaka, with a work permit, Serevi will feel even more at home in his new surroundings.

"This is a big challenge for me," he admits, conscious of the culture gap that not only divides sevens from fifteens but, far more profoundly, Far East from East Midlands. "But it is one I feel I can meet. It will not be easy; in sevens, the pitch is huge and there is space to run but in fifteens, the forwards do the work and control the game. I am not a forward, but I like the ball. From what I see at Leicester, there are people here who can give it to me."

Dwyer, for one, will insist on it. "What can Waisale do for us? Well, let's put it simply. He can score a lot of tries. What else matters?" What indeed? Come rain or shine, Leicester's most exotic recruit is ready to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.