F is for Fiji

For sixty years, Fiji proudly marched into the Olympic stadium, fielding teams of four or five athletes with no hope of winning a medal. Even as recently as London 2012, the plucky team of nine competed in archery, weightlifting, swimming, and judo, finishing below practically every other country in the qualifying rounds. This is what it’s like to be one of the other 207 smaller nations, unable to field teams fat with television viewing or corporate sponsorship money. Countries participate for pride and personal bests against those who bring technologically-superior equipment and the state-of-the-art training. Until the time comes when their national sport gets added to the lists. So it was when Rugby Sevens finally made it to the Games in Rio 2016.

Tevita Waranaivalu scores again for Fiji at the 2016 Olympics. Photo at Olympic.org.

The Pain in the Neck History of Rugby

Rugby has a long history, at least in its most basic form. Throwing around an inflated pig’s bladder was written about by the Romans as Harpastum:

Harpastum… Great are the exertion and fatigue attendant upon contests of ball-playing, and violent twisting and turning of the neck. Hence Antiphanes, ‘Damn it, what a pain in the neck I’ve got.’ He describes the game thus: ‘He seized the ball and passed it to a team-mate while dodging another and laughing. He pushed it out of the way of another. Another fellow player he raised to his feet. All the while the crowd resounded with shouts of Out of bounds, Too far, Right beside him, Over his head, On the ground, Up in the air, Too short, Pass it back in the scrum.’

Written by Athaneus of Rome, cited in wikipedia.

The British Rugby School gets credit for creating the sport in the form played today. Rugby school was formed in Warwickshire as a free grammar school for local kids by a man who made his wealth as the grocer to Queen Elizabeth I. Somewhere along the way, the school threw out the riffraff, focused on paying customers, and catered only to the children of aristocrats. That’s when the name got slapped on the game.

What Is Rugby?

As far as how rugby is technically played, I am contrite in trying to even write about it. Wikipedia tells me that rugby could include any of the following *deep breath*: rugby union, rugby league, rugby football, rugby sevens, rugby-15, rugby internationals, Super Rugby, the Commonwealth cup, the Premiership, the World cup, and the IRB sevens. Most of the descriptions start with the disclaimer…”not to be confused with…” and I have noticed British acquaintances often start their social media posts with “…c’mon Channel One, show the real game, not this fill-in-the-blank other rugby nonsense…”

So instead of trying to describe “real rugby” and getting into an argument about which rugby is the real rugby, let me try to describe it as an ignorant American. For those of us who didn’t grow up with rugby, I would describe the game as similar to the touch football you play with your extended family on Thanksgiving, except it’s tackle based and the ball is still live if it touches the ground. All sorts of throwing is allowed–sideways, backwards, over the shoulder–pretty much any sort of anything seems to be allowed. And there’s no quarterback. Some players are faster, so the goal is to get them the ball so they can outrun everybody, especially down the sidelines. Others players are bigger, so they’re better at tackling or what basketball genteelly calls an “offensive screen” (taking out anyone who tries to get to the speedster).

In general, every player needs to be fast and strong, rather than the compartmentalization that American football sees with specialties like defensive left tackle or special teams gunner. Bad enough that Am. football already requires 28 separate players for offense and defense, but now each of the 28 on ” special teams” also needs to be unique. This is proof that there’s too much money available in American football. The idea of requiring only seven players, who have to play offense and defense, seems far more interesting. Yes, I’m focusing on Rugby Sevens, and I apologize if that isn’t the “real rugby” that you prefer.

Fiji’s national team demonstrating the cibi before their 2016 match. Photo at Olympic.org.

Rugby Becomes Fiji’s National “Religion”

This I can tell you. Rugby was brought to Fiji along with racial discrimination, commercial exploitation, religious oppression, and cultural appropriation. When it comes to European colonizers, same as it ever was. Rugby, in its modern derivation, was an English sport, so as the English made their way to create the empire where the sun never sets, rugby went with it.

Other South Pacific colonies took to the sport, too. New Zealand is a dominant world power in the sport, with strong contenders in Australia, Tonga, and South Africa. Naturally, Great Britain also fields an outstanding team. But in Fiji, there are 80,000 registered players among a population of some 900,000. Nearly ten percent officially play the sport. We don’t have 30 million registered football players in the U.S. Just sayin’.

The Fijian style of play has been described as “mystical” and “free-flowing.” American football fans might think about Jerry Rice’s tiptoe catches, Marshawn Lynch’s “Beast Mode” where he carries players as he runs, or even the multi-lateral Play that let Cal score the last second winning touchdown while plowing through Stanford’s marching band. Just keep running with ‘de ball!

Love of Country, Love of Sport

What first caught my attention in the Olympic rugby tournament was the Fijians fans. Between their powder blue headgear and their orchestrated chants, they were one of the best organized and most joyous fan groups I’d ever seen. It was noticeable how much these people supported their team, how vocal, how happy, and how proud. While the Fijian team was thrashing their ancestral colonizers of Great Britain in the final match, 43-7, Fijians were shown stopping in the streets to watch the game. There was a raucous scene at the airport when the team returned.

Being in the Olympics had always meant something for Fiji, as their athletes marched into the stadiums with tiny contingents whose best hope was to come in 63 out of 64 in the archery list. They came to compete anyway. In 2016, just a few months after Hurricane Winston had thrashed the poor island nation into chaos, their Olympic team marched 54 proud into Rio, fielding both a soccer and rugby team at last, next to the single stalwarts in archery and wrestling. A rugby team that was world ranked.

The Fijians played well in their rounds against Argentina, hometown Brazil, and plucky Americans, who themselves were trying out players from other sports. In the quarterfinal match, Fiji outlasted their long-time rivals, New Zealand’s All Blacks, 12-7. That was like two powerhouses meeting in the first round of the playhouses, unfortunate for the loser. Even a novice might suggest that was a match full of defense.

Fiji breezed past a surprisingly good Japanese team in the semis, 20-5, to head to the finals with Great Britain. As the final 43-7 score suggests, Fiji couldn’t hold back. We do see this in American Super Bowls, where a team that has contained itself through the long, grueling playoff season doesn’t stop in the last game when they sense an advantage against the best team from the other side. Whenever Fiji got the ball, they scored. When GB got the ball, they mostly didn’t. As with games that aren’t overly burdened with penalty categories requiring three minute televised replays to determine whether the player’s toe was on the line or over the line, rugby sevens in 2016 was pretty pure. Get the ball and run with it. So Fiji did.

It somehow seems incredibly fitting, especially since I was writing about the Princess Royal just yesterday, to note that Her Royal Highness Anne gave out the medals to a very respectful and ecstatic Fijian national team. Poor men from an impoverished country, thrilled at last to show the world how well they play.

The Fijian team receives congratulations and gold medals from HRH Princess Anne in Rio 2016. Photo by Reuters.

I might have to obtain a powder-blue wig myself to cheer them on in Tokyo.

This post is part of the 26-day A to Z Challenge with my topic: The Olympics

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