x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Fijian Drauniniu is on crest of England wave

England's newest international rugby player, Josua Drauniniu, fears his communication skills may not be quite up to scratch.

The Dubai Rugby Sevens kicked off yesterday with the teams Sporting Chance Foundation and Stefans Adidas BHF battling it out.
The Dubai Rugby Sevens kicked off yesterday with the teams Sporting Chance Foundation and Stefans Adidas BHF battling it out.

England's newest international rugby player, Josua Drauniniu, fears his communication skills may not be quite up to scratch. "I'm not nervous," he says in perfect English, bar a faint West Country accent, after having a dictaphone pushed in front of him. "I just never really know what to say." He deserves some slack. Drauniniu, who has been permitted leave from service in the Navy to play in the UAE, is the absolute antithesis of the modern, academy-trained rugby player.

"We haven't had the chance to give him any media training yet," admits his England coach, Ben Ryan. Be that as it may, Drauniniu's reticence with words is chronic. He will make his England debut at The Sevens today and, a fortnight after being selected, he has not even spoken to his parents, who are back at home in Fiji, about it. "I haven't told them yet," he says. "I might just surprise them. If I get a game, hopefully against Fiji, they might be watching and they might see me.

"After that I will probably call home and have a massive chat with my mum and dad." He is likely to be spotted. In Fiji, sevens rugby fans rarely miss a beat. With Waisale Serevi, the greatest sevens player, back in harness as coach of their own team, hopes are high that Fiji can claim back the Emirates International Trophy for the first time in 10 years. Yet their fans are likely to have a foot in another camp, too. Drauniniu is the second Fijian to join the England ranks in the past couple of seasons, with Isoa Damudamu also back in Dubai for the second time.

Both serve in the British armed forces. Damu is a private in the Army, while Drauniniu has seen active service in the Gulf during his time in Navy. He left his home in Lautoka on the west coast of mainland Fiji aged 17, to sign up on April 28 2003. "I met a ship in Muscat in Oman, then went to Lebanon when the whole thing kicked off. "I was there, getting evacuees on to the ship. I had to get them in and get them food. There were loads of people coming through.

"It was on HMS Bulwark, which is a landing platform deck, quite a big ship, and we had to get all these British citizens out of Lebanon and get them to Cyprus. It was a great experience that I learnt a lot from." Despite his day job, his life seems to be be more defined by rugby at present. "We played rugby in Djibouti against the French foreign legion, and we beat them. It was a big thrashing, which was really great. We played in Kuwait against the Fijians, but they kicked us."

Much like the Army have done with Damu, when he recently earned himself a contract with one of England's biggest clubs, Wasps, the Navy spied a good PR opportunity through Drauniniu's rugby skills. He works two days per week, and was given a year off last year to devote to improving as a rugby player. "I started playing senior rugby for the Navy in 2004 at Twickenham, in the annual inter-services match against the Army," he recalls.

Three years later he was picked up by Exeter Chiefs, a club chasing promotion to English rugby's top rank, which is where he caught the eye of England's selectors. "I was surprised to get a call-up from England rugby, but here I am," he says. "I didn't ever think I was going to get a call-up. That is just my mentality. I was just playing weekend rugby for Exeter and I would not have minded if I hadn't been called up.

"I got a call telling me I had been selected in the 12-man team for Dubai, and I was like 'Whoa - this is good!' It is great that I have the chance to represent an international side. "I don't want to get too ahead of myself, I just want to take it step by step. At first, I am playing for England sevens and we will take it from there." Ryan, who knew Damu through their former club, Newbury Blues, struggles to contain his zeal over his new South Seas recruit.

"We knew about him, Fiji didn't, and we see him as someone who can go through the game, not just at sevens," said the England coach. "He is a try scorer. He probably doesn't look quite as quick as he is, because he has a very fluid, effortless way of running. He glides through holes." @Email:pradley@thenational.ae