Just hearing the name of this archipelago immediately plunges you into an irrational world. The Fiji Islands. An invitation to travel, to dream, but also to fear. The rugby gods were probably born on these islands at the end of the world. And if this country is lost in the middle of the Pacific, there is nothing peaceful about the players who are born there. Perhaps the greatest mystery lies in this curious and insoluble equation: how can a country as populous as the city of Marseille, 750km from its nearest neighbour and more than 4,000km from Australia, produce so many talented players over such a long period of time? Squaring the circle in the land of ovalie.
Today, 39 Fijian players play in the Top 14. Over the years, some have passed through the league like comets. Others have shone so brightly that they have made a lasting mark on the rich history of our championship. Focus on 4 Fijian stars who have shone in the French championship.
Emori Bolo Bolo, the pioneer
Emori Bolo Bolo was the first Fijian player to discover and, more importantly, win the championship. A player as devastating on the pitch as he is gentle off it. To paint a portrait of this atypical player, we turn to Denis Charvet, the man who discovered him and brought him to France. The former player was then coach of the backs at Stade Français. A club that had just climbed back into the Top 14.
"It's a crazy story: I was invited with the Babas for a tournament in Asia. I was travelling with Jean-Pierre Rives, Serge Kampfs and everyone else.
We were in Hong Kong, I was watching the matches, and there I saw a player who crossed the pitch with every ball. Nobody knew him. But he was a monster. After the games, I bumped into him in the stands. I had a chat with him and said "with your talent, you should come to France". He seemed interested and gave me his number. When I got home, I immediately spoke to Bernard Laporte, the coach of Stade Français. Bernard had never seen him play in his life. But I told him, "Bernard, he's an extraterrestrial". So he trusted me. And he called him.
The funny thing was, we called him, we managed to get hold of him, we got him to come to Paris. And then the most amazing thing happened: I found myself in the office with Max Guazzini, the club president. But Max asked me to come with him to NRJ because he spoke two words of English. He tells me 'how much he wants'. But I don't know anything about it. We don't know what he's worth, I've seen him play at 7s... I was the intermediary but I had no real idea what he was worth. I asked him how much he wanted. Then we signed and he arrived at Stade Français. A few months later, he scored the decisive try in the final of the French championship.
The story is beautiful too, because this guy was pure Fijian. He was a gentle, modest man. It was difficult to really talk to him, but he was very endearing. And then on the pitch, he was ultra physical. He was the Fijian Jonah Lomu. He was very fast. He had everything. But still, on the wing, one side was Christophe Dominici and the other was Bolobolo. Physically, they weren't the same (laughs).
I admit that what I missed was seeing him play 7s. He did what he wanted. It was a shock. Strangely enough, I wonder how this guy wasn't spotted before. How he didn't sign elsewhere. He was a cut above the rest. Today, you could compare him to Raka."
IDENTITY CARD OF EMERI BOLOBOLO
- Full name: unknown
- Height: 1m90
- Weight: 108 kilos
- Clubs : Stade Français
- Sélections : Fidji 7-a-side
- Titles : 1998 French Top 14 champion (Stade Français)
Napolioni Nalaga, the islands buldozer
"Napo" shook up the Top 14. His devastating charges and powerful style wreaked havoc for almost 10 years. With ASM Clermont, he reached the top of the league and the European peaks. So who better to talk about him than his alter-ego at Les Jaunards, Julien Malzieu. The French international remembers this fantastic player for you.
Julien Malzieu, former Clermont and French national team player on Napoleoni Nalaga:
"Napolioni Nalaga... The first time I met him, I think it was when he came up to train with the pros. But I'd already heard of him, because my brother had played with him with the Espoirs. He told me, "Be careful, he's a monster". In his first game with them, he scored 4 tries and crossed the field I don't know how many times. As we often say in rugby, "Napo" was an animal. Physically, he wasn't impressive. He wasn't a muscular player, he wasn't drawn like others, but the arms, the thighs, the calves, the back: everything was huge. He was monstrous. At the time, he weighed what? 105-107 kilos. But the funny thing was, he was a bit of an anti-Fijian. But be warned: he was a fake slow. His qualities were also support and speed. But it's true that his main weapon was his power. He specialized in beating people up (laughs).
Because he was so big and bulky, it was very difficult to defend against him. If you caught him at the bottom, he'd dig you in. And if you caught him at the top, he'd give you an out-of-this-world racket. I have an image: in 2009, between two matches in the Six Nations Tournament, I went to Dubai to help out France 7s. Thierry Janeczek, the coach, knew that I didn't have the cash register like when I played with them. So at the start of the tournament, he kindly told me, "I'll put you on the wing, so you'll have less ground to cover". Only, we were up against Fiji and I found myself up against Napolioni Nalaga. I find myself defending against him. He comes in throwing. I'm not the best defender in the world, so I wait and wait... until contact. And then he puts the palm of his hand in my sternum. And without laughing, I take a shotgun blast in the chest. He's knocked me out. I fall to the ground and roll. Horrible...
My other memory is from 2008, I think. The French team was playing the Pacific Islanders. And after 15 minutes, he missed his tackle and tore Jean-Bapstiste Elissalde's head off. He gets a red card. The last image that comes to mind when I think of him is a French Championship semi-final against Perpignan. That was in 2007. That day, we played a good match.
Napo breaks through the first curtain. Nicolas Laharrague tried desperately to get back on him, and he made a huge racket. Laharrague goes from 25km/h to 0 km/h in half a second. He hit a wall. I remember that action because it was an important match. But stuff like that, Napo has done it dozens, hundreds of times."
Identity card of Napolioni Nalaga :
- Full name : Napolioni Vonowale Nalaga
- Height : 1m91
- Weight : 109 kilos
- Clubs : Clermont, Lyon
- Sélections :
- Titles : 2010 French Top 14 champion (Clermont), 2016 French ProD2 champion (Lyon)
Rupeni Caucaunibuca, the raw diamonds
He is perhaps the greatest Fijian of all time. Those who have played against him almost always refer to him as the greatest player they have ever come across. And those who have played with him do so every time. Rupeni Caucaunibuca, the genius, the nugget, the greatest. When he felt like it... A look back at his arrival and explosion in France with the man who was to serve as his captain and sometimes chaperone, Luc Lafforgue, SU Agen's other winger.
Luc Lafforgue, former Agen player (1998-2009) on Rupeni Caucaunibuca :
"The first memory I have, I think it's the same memory as everyone else. He played against France in the World Cup. And we already knew he was a bomb. So when he arrived in Agen, he was stronger. Because a few months had gone by, he wasn't the most serious about his lifestyle and he'd put on a few kilos. But then a magician arrived. A genius. A guy who could do it all. Technique, speed, power: he was an extraterrestrial.
To be honest, I've played rugby for a long time, and I've known some great players. But Rups was the best player I ever played with. He knew how to do everything. He could electrocute you on a percussion or drop you a metre away and you wouldn't touch him. It was just mind-blowing. Truly, a magician.
Today, we'd call it the "X factor". But back then, it was simple: nobody could stop him. If he decided to score, he scored. I've known Nalaga, Bobo, brilliant finishers. But Rupeni wasn't just a finisher you put in the box. He was also a creator. He could try things out for himself. There were several times at half-time when we'd say to him: "Rups, you've got to help us", and in three or four balls, he'd win it all. Even we sometimes became spectators of what he was doing.
Let me tell you, I realized that I was dealing with an extraordinary player, because he filled the stadium all by himself. Frankly, 50% of the stadium came to see SUA, and 50% came to see Caucaunibuca. He was capable of anything. I saw him cross the field holding the ball in one hand, I saw him run just a little faster than the fastest player in front, looking him in the eye to taunt him.
Afterwards, I know that for the club, it was also a headache. Because for some training sessions, we had to fetch him from his home. Because when he went on vacation to Fiji, he'd come back 15 days late and 10 kilos overweight... Sylvain Mirande and I were in charge of looking after him in Agen. He was a great player, but he wasn't really adapted to European life, and it was quite difficult at times. You know, when at the end of the second series of 30/30 on a physical training session, he was walking... pffff. But he was so much better. He was winning games for us. So what do you want to say to him?
I remember, against Clermont: he got inside the 22m, accelerated, hooked, re-accelerated, had 4 guys on his ass, and took them off to score all by himself... There was everything in that try: power, technique, speed. And then another match, against Toulon. It was awful, in the fog. We told him "Rups, come on, get us out of here". And he scored 1 or 2 tries. When he felt like it, he crossed the field. He's the Fijian par excellence: ultra-talented, but the laziest of them all (laughs).
My funniest memory is the time Sylvain and I tried to get him on the phone in his village in Fiji to ask him to come home. And frankly, we got the whole village before we got him (laughs). But Laurent Lubrano, the General Manager, had to go and get him there. And getting there was hell.
Finally, Rokocoko said he was the best of all the players he'd come across. And even at 130 plates (130 kilos NDLR) in Toulouse, everyone was laughing at him because he wasn't making any progress. But I watched the matches again: when Stade Toulousain won the title in 2011 and 2012, he was always the best player on the pitch."
Identity card of Rupeni Caucaunibuca
- Full name : Rupeni Caucaunibuca
- Height : 1m81
- Weight : 110 kilos
- Clubs : Agen, Toulouse
- Sélections : 8 sélections, 10 tries.
- Titles : French Top 14 champion 2011 and 2012 (Toulouse), French ProD2 champion 2010 (Agen)
Sireli Bobo, the dean tightrope walker
At over 40 years of age, he continued to abuse his opponents and thrill the stands. Sireli Bobo is a role model. An example of seriousness, hard work and longevity. But before being a wise old man and a spiritual guide, the winger was first and foremost the most elegant and fastest player in the Top 14. At Biarritz, he revealed himself and dazzled the championship with his class. Alongside him was a player who was to feed the Fijian glutton: Julien Dupuy. The scrum-half delves into his memories for you.
Julien Dupuy, Biarritz and France team player, on Sireli Bobo:
"The first time I met him, frankly? I can't remember. On the other hand, I remember the first training session very well. Honestly, there was no other like him. Physically, he was lean, tall and slender. But it was mainly his speed. He was a sight to behold. I don't remember anything in particular. But as soon as he had the field, he was going at 10,000 an hour. To tell you the truth, we even had game launches made just to make him shine. We had moves to make him crunch (laughs).
And then I also remember the physical sessions, the 10/10 and 20/20, we'd start off at a steady pace so as not to burn out. But for the first 10 metres, he'd take 4 steps while you'd take 20. And the rest, he did by walking. It was amazing.
After that, he was always a free spirit in the group. We had to protect him a bit too. No, because when you take two hooks, three hooks, an overhang... well, after a while, he could take an opponent's knees behind his back in a ruck. And you have to remember that back then it wasn't exactly easy for him. There weren't as many Fijian players in the league. He did have a few evenings with Rupeni Caucaunibuca, but it wasn't the same era.
Let's say I've come across 3 phenomena in my career. Alesana Tuilagi, Waisea Nayacalevu and Sireli Bobo. What's the difference between him and Waisea? I'd say it wasn't the same era. It's difficult to compare. But Waisea was capable of creating space for himself from any ball, while Bobo, given the slightest space, would break through to score. I can assure you: there weren't many guys who slept well the night before playing against Sireli Bobo. Because as I said, he was dry, sharp and rarely injured. And then you had to catch him... I'm not surprised to have seen him play until he was 42. Maybe back then, there was less fighting when you played on the wing.
Maybe he wasn't the best defender in the world. But we forgive him. In fact, we forgive everyone. It's true that the try against Munster cost us a title. But it's more a problem of communication, not just a problem with Sireli. It's not just about him. So yes, he was an immense talent. But I think we forgive everyone. Even those who weren't as talented as he was.
IDENTITY CARD OF SIRELI BOBO
- Full name : Isireli Bobo
- Height : 1m91
- Weight : 99 kilos
- Clubs : Biarritz, Racing, La Rochelle, Toulon, Pau
- Sélections : 19 sélections, 11 tries
- Titles : French Top 14 champion in 2006 (Biarritz), French ProD2 champion in 2009 (Racing-Métro)
At the World Cup, Fiji will be in Pool C. They will face Wales (10 September), Australia (17 September), Georgia (30 September) and Portugal (8 October).
LP invites you to play a game: who are the best Fijians in the history of the championship? It's up to you! And here's ours:
The XV of the Fijians in the LP Top 14 :
Ravai - Matavesi - Saulo
Nakarawa - Qovu
Botia - Koyamaibole - Qera
Serevi - Bai
Nalaga - Tuisova - Radradra - Nadolo