Inoke Male is not terribly fond of European club rugby, by the sound of it. “The loneliness, the environment, the weather… some of our boys lose their touch of brilliance when they are playing there,” said the Fiji coach this week in support of his argument that Pacific Islanders – particularly those islanders from the most heavily populated of the rugby-playing South Seas nations – would free themselves of their shackles by recrossing the Equator as fast as their legs will carry them, which in some cases is very fast indeed.
Vereniki Goneva is unconvinced. The latest in a long line of wondrous South Seas backs to reduce Premiership audiences to a state of spellbound silence – it is not stretching a point by so much as a millimetre to place him in the company of Va’aiga Tuigamala, Alesana Tuilagi, Seilala Mapusua, Seru Rabeni and Stephen Bachop – the man from Nadi has been playing for Leicester, the reigning English champions, since the start of last season. On current evidence, it is not entirely obvious that the move north has cramped his style.
“Rugby is definitely different here,” Goneva acknowledged this week, “but I don’t believe the way the game is played in England stops me from doing the things I would try to do anywhere in the world. The training is harder – much harder than anything I’ve experienced before – and more serious too, but the biggest difference is the scale of the sport in the Premiership.
“To perform in big stadiums, in front of big crowds… this is what the children back home dream of doing when they’re throwing a ball around on the beach, or on the roadside with the cars going by. It is important to me to play professionally and provide money for my family but it is also important to learn more about the game. Here, I am always learning. If I don’t learn, people shout at me.”
Equally adept at wing or centre, Goneva is a senior member of the Fiji international side and, at 29, he commands the complete respect of his colleagues in the Test squad. Perhaps more impressively, he is similarly admired by his confrères at Leicester – a more hard-bitten lot altogether. “Niki? The man with the phenomenal feet? He could beat you in a phone box and leave you wondering where he went. You can train with him all year long and still not work out how he does it.” So says Ben Youngs, the England scrum-half, who is not alone in feeling mystified by the Fijian’s rich mix of size, power, pace and elusiveness.
Goneva’s story is a familiar one. He grew up playing the seven-a-side form of the sport – very much a Fijian speciality – and it was the greatest of all short-game practitioners, Waisale Serevi, who identified him as a potential world-beater. His early successes on the international sevens circuit alerted Rotherham, of all English teams, but his brief spell there was disappointingly ho-hum and he pushed off across the Channel to join the French club Colomiers. Things looked up when he scored a jaw-dropping try for Fiji against the All Blacks in Dunedin, and on leaving Colomiers for Tarbes, he continued in the same vein, alerting Leicester to his existence in the process.
“My agent told me that big teams in England were interested in offering me a contract,” Goneva said. “When he mentioned Leicester, I thought, ‘Why not?’ I’d heard of them. If a club as famous as the Tigers wanted me there was no point looking at anyone else. What really impressed me was that Richard Cockerill [the Leicester rugby director] came to France to see me. All the way over there, just to speak to me! That was a special moment. He’s the big boss. I felt very honoured.”
Whatever Leicester shelled out on Cockerill’s awayday hop to Gascony, and however much the former England hooker coughed up for a round of coffees, it was money well spent. Goneva’s first season at Welford Road was interrupted by injury, but he showed more than enough to convince the Midlanders they had struck gold. This term, he has taken his rugby to new heights. Indeed, he is probably the player of the campaign to date.
Yet Goneva is no one-man band. Rather, he is at the forefront of a new wave of islanders, Samoans and Tongans as well as Fijians, making landfall in the Premiership. Leaving aside those who have qualified for England – Manu Tuilagi of Leicester, the Vunipola brothers at Saracens – there are well over 30 South Seas players in the 12 senior squads, more than ever before. On any given weekend, half the London Irish pack may be made up of Pacific (or, maybe, not so pacific) players, with the Tongan prop Halani Aulika and the Samoan flanker Ofisa Treviranus at the heart of matters. Similarly, the current first-choice Worcester back division features Josh Matavesi, Ravai Fatiaki, Josh Drauniniu and that diminutive miracle of this rugby age, David Lemi.
Take into account the 50-odd South Seas imports currently playing Top 14 rugby in France, the smattering who have made their way into the Celtic-Italian Pro 12 league and the considerable number performing professionally in Australia and New Zealand – no fewer than nine of the 23-man Wallaby squad for today’s Rugby Championship meeting with South Africa are of islands descent – and you are looking squarely at one of the most remarkable phenomena in modern sport. For three nations with a combined population of little more than a million – about two-thirds that of West Yorkshire – to make such an impact, something extraordinary must be happening.
According to Goneva, the 2015 World Cup in England could mark the moment South Seas rugby reaches full flower. He is not, however, at all confident that Fiji will be at the forefront of that flowering. “I believe Samoa, in particular, will be in a position to go far in the tournament,” he said. “There are a lot of Samoan forwards playing in Europe, which makes a big difference to their ability to perform at the top international level. By comparison, there are very few Fijian forwards. Also, it is clear that Samoa will have a settled squad who have been together a long time. When I join up with Fiji, I don’t recognise many players. Our squad is always changing.”
Is there a danger that the 15-a-side game will wither on the vine in Fiji? After reaching the quarter-finals of the 2007 World Cup in France and scaring the living daylights out of the Springboks, the eventual winners, with a spectacular attacking assault in Marseilles, they bombed four years later in New Zealand, losing heavily to Samoa and taking fearful batterings from both South Africa and Wales. Might another blowout do irreparable damage, especially if the Fijians strike gold at the inaugural Olympic sevens in Rio de Janeiro a few months later?
“It is definitely true that for most people in Fiji sevens is the game to love,” Goneva responded. “I don’t think the 15-a-side game will ever disappear completely, but it could be weakened if the World Cup goes wrong and the Olympics go well.”
Would it help if the All Blacks, the biggest box-office attraction the union code has to offer, finally repaid their huge debt to Fijian rugby by playing a full Test in the islands? (Scandalously, they have never done so. More reprehensibly still, they even refused to change tack this year when invited to play in Suva as part of the Fiji union’s centenary celebrations). Goneva sighed, deeply. “You know, I don’t think they will ever play in my country. I just don’t see it happening.”
What he does expect to see is a continuation of the South Seas rugby migration to Europe – and whatever his national coach might say, the International Rugby Board wants to see it too. The sport’s governing body has never said so publicly, but it sees club rugby in England and France as a valuable finishing school for the Fijians, Samoans and Tongans – a place where they can learn the harsher, darker realities of the union game at professional level and use their new-found expertise as a counterweight to the wilder, more exuberant and infinitely less structured brand of rugby they play in the islands.
At this stage, the Samoans are the most likely islanders to upset the global applecart but, as the Fijians reminded us six years ago, anything is possible when players of Goneva’s quality catch fire. And while any appearance in a World Cup semi-final is unlikely to be at the expense of the high-handed New Zealanders, hope springs eternal in the human breast.