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Sainivalati Vunibola made his debut last weekend at the Gold Coast Sevens.
Sainivalati Vunibola made his debut last weekend at the Gold Coast Sevens.

Fiji's 'faithful rugby man'

Farmer called into squad for experience, 'He is 39, and 39 year olds don't get nervous like 19 year olds,' says assistant coach.

DUBAI // The world series elite are in the middle of a new and - they have been assured by the International Rugby Board - one-off challenge of having to play three successive weekends on three different continents.

The workload is likely to put a strain on resources, but if Sainivalati Vunibola can manage it, everyone else should be able to.

The towering Fiji forward is playing his second world series tournament this weekend, six days after making his international sporting debut aged 39.

As Fiji started their bid to recapture their glorious past, they called up someone who is old enough to remember it well, and summoned Vunibola, a farmer, from his village to travel to Australia for the Gold Coast sevens.

"A 39 year old in Fiji is like a 29 year old anywhere else," Etuate Waqa, Fiji's assistant coach said yesterday.

"That guy has been involved in rugby for the last 30 years. With all that experience we wanted him in our team, and because of his line-out ability, his rucking ability, and to integrate that with our younger players with the speed and flair they have."

Ben Ryan, the England coach, yesterday said the startlingly late blooming of Vunibola was a good sign for the game, as it was another marker that sevens is no longer seen as merely a development tool but an end in itself.

He said "Thirty can often be seen as a swear word in sport." Maybe 39 is pushing it a little, though. Vunibola, for one, had probably given up waiting for the call to come.

"I always followed him during his rugby career," Waqa said. "He is a faithful rugby man, he is a faithful servant to any coach he plays for.

"I was the one who called him in his village, and asked if he would like to play for the sevens team. He said, 'Yeah, OK.' He is 39, and 39 year olds don't get nervous like 19 year olds."

Waqa oversaw Fiji's rousing success in the opening leg of the series as interim head coach, because Alifereti Dere, the incumbent, was barred from entering Australia due to his military background.

He has handed back the reins for the trip to Dubai, where Fiji know they will have to overcome a New Zealand side intent on revenge after last weekend's final.

Having claimed the Emirates International Trophy more times - six - than anyone else, the New Zealanders know what is required of them in Dubai.

"Fiji played particularly well to win that final after we had beaten them convincingly in the pool match," Gordon Tietjens, the New Zealand coach, said.

"It is the nature of sevens now that any team can make a turnaround like that."

 

pradley@thenational.ae

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