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Fire and flair: Fijian rugby

By Sean Davies
BBC Sport

Playing colours: Black and white, with palm tree badge
The Cibi: Fiji's war dance

As unlikely as it may seem in this south sea paradise, Fiji is one of the few countries in the world where rugby is the main sport, a game inspiring the passion of the islanders like no other.

Fiji lay down the Cibi challenge

The first rugby matches in the country are believed to have been played by European and Fijian soldiers of the native constabulary at Ba.

Constabulary and Civil Service were two of the earliest clubs as teams from visiting warships provided regular opposition.

By 1904 a club competition had been formed, but the man who inspired the growth of the sport arrived in Fiji in 1913 - PJ Sheehan.

Sheehan - known to all as 'Paddy' - was a New Zealand plumber who came to Suva to work on the Grand Pacific Hotel.

He was a former captain of Otago, and, with his fellow tradesmen from New Zealand and Australia desperate for a sporting release, he formed the Pacific Rugby Club.

A Fiji rugby supporter
Fijian fans are amongst the most passionate in the world

United Services, Cadets and Rewa clubs soon followed, the four teams together forming the Fijian Rugby Union under the chairmanship of Sheehan.

In 1913 Pacific won the first Escott Shield, a trophy donated by the then-governor Sir Ernest Bickham Sweet-Escott.

The All Blacks arrived in December on their way home from a tour of California, and they met Fiji for that country's first representative match.

New Zealand ran out 67-3 winners, Fiji's only points a try from their captain and coach Sheehan.

The native islanders were fascinated by the sport and - though they struggled to come to terms with some of the technicalities - quickly took to it themselves.

A native competition was started in 1914, Taipou, Tarirere, Hill and Ofisa (Police) the first clubs.

A Fiji Native Union was formed in 1915, which was affiliated to the Fiji RFU.

Enjoying rugby on a Fiji beach
Punting and palm trees make a potent mix

The first overseas game was played in 1924 against south sea neighbours Samoa in Apia.

The game kicked off at 7am to allow the home team to get to work afterwards and the pitch's most striking feature was a palm tree on the half-way line, but Fiji overcame all obstacles to run out 6-0 winners.

The islanders took the sensible decision to wear boots for the first time ahead of the 1938 visit of New Zealand Maori, but many still preferred to go barefoot on the first tour of New Zealand the following year.

Fiji's captain for that tour, Ratu Sir George Cakobau, decided that his side should have a war dance to rival the Haka.

He approached Ratu Bola, the high chief of the warrior clan of Navusaradave in Bau, who taught them the Cibi that has been Fiji's pre-match ritual ever since.

The islanders won seven of their games on tour and drew the other one, thrilling the New Zealand media with their free running and crash tackling.

Further tours of New Zealand and Australia took place throughout the 1950s, and in 1964 the islanders made their first tour of Europe.

They played five memorable games in Wales, culminating in a 28-22 non-cap loss to the national side in Cardiff, where Wales conceded six tries for just the second time in their history.

1977 proved a jubilee year for Fiji, including a 25-21 win over the Lions on their return from the tour of New Zealand.

But it has been in the sevens game that the islanders have really left their mark on world rugby and in that year they won the second Hong Kong Sevens tournament.

Waisale Serevi is a symbol of Fiji's sevens dominance
Fiji's sevens prowess is world-renowned

Over the succeeding years Fiji would vie with New Zealand for dominance of the world sevens circuit, the islanders' athleticism and adventure proving a potent mix.

The technical demands of the 15-a-side game continued to be a struggle, though, their plight not helped by a drain of some of their best players to Australia and New Zealand.

Fiji played their first full Test against Wales in Cardiff in 1985, the home pack dominating in a 40-3 win with two tries to Phil Davies.

Fiji were also heavily beaten by Llanelli and Cardiff, but lost by just one point in their Test with Ireland.

Wales visited Suva the following year, where captain Dai Pickering's summer tour was brought to a premature end when he suffered concussion from a kick to the head.

Richard Moriarty took over and saw his side's 13-0 lead cut to a single point before Wales pulled away for a 15-22 win.

Fiji reached the quarter-final of the 1987 World Cup, but lost all three pool games in 1991 and failed to even qualify for the 1995 tournament.

Wales' third Test win over the islanders came in Suva in 1994. The tourists fielded a much-changed line-up to allow all their squad a game, but they were good enough to run out 23-8 victors.

Joeli Veitayakii
Veitayaki is a talisman of Fijian rugby

Fiji's huge prop and talisman Joeli Veitayaki - who was later to join Dunvant - scored a try in the match.

Fiji had a troubled tour of Wales and Ireland in 1995, losing six of nine games with defeat to Neath, Cardiff and Pontypridd.

They ran Wales close at the Arms Park, though, Kevin Bowring marking his debut as Wales' first professional coach with a 19-15 win in which Craig Quinnell made his debut as a blind-side flanker.

Fiji rebuilt ahead of the 1999 World Cup, new coach Brad Johnstone instilling a Kiwi's discipline and determination into their set-piece play.

A hugely impressive tournament followed, a controversial refereeing performance from Paddy O'Brien felt to have cost them a win over France in Toulouse and a quarter-final spot.

A brave 45-24 play-off loss to England at Twickenham followed, and soon after the tournament Johnstone departed for Italy.

Gareth Thomas takes on the Fiji defence in 2002
Wales have a 100% record against Fiji

Fiji's next game with Wales came at the Millennium Stadium in November 2002.

Critics of Wales coach Steve Hansen were vociferous in the build-up, but two Mark Jones tries and 21 points from the boot of Stephen Jones helped the home side to a comfortable 58-14 win.

Fiji were again unfortunate to miss out on a World Cup quarter-final place in 2003, Scotland edging them out with a 22-20 victory in the final pool game.

Mike Ruddock's Grand Slam-holding Wales side had a major wobble against the islanders in November 2005, needing a late Nicky Robinson drop goal to sneak an 11-10 Millennium Stadium win.

But Wales remained confident of retaining a 100% record over Fiji in their final game of the 2007 World Cup group stages in Nantes.

Incredibly, Wales chose to take on the islanders at their own running game, the approach summing up the shambolic leadership structure that had prevailed in the squad since Ruddock's controversial departure in 2006.

A spectacular, see-saw game resulted, before a last-gasp Graham Dewes try sealed a famous 34-38 victory for Fiji that saw them into the quarter-finals at Wales' expense, leading to Gareth Jenkins' prompt dismissal as coach.

Wales fared little better at home in November 2010, Seremaia Bai's last-gasp penalty giving the visitors a 16-16 draw after an error-strewn game at the Millennium Stadium.

see also
Wales v Fiji: Full record
29 Sep 06 |  Rugby Union
Fiji rugby songs
29 Sep 06 |  Welsh
The 1964 Fijians
24 Sep 07 |  Welsh
Wales' rugby fixtures
26 Jun 07 |  Welsh
Wales rugby results archive
15 Oct 03 |  Welsh
Scrum V's rugby history
11 Aug 07 |  Welsh

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