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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

Countdown to Dubai Rugby Sevens: Jerry Tuwai rises from modest background to become Fiji superstar

The Fiji captain talks to Paul Radley about his journey, from having learnt his rugby on a roundabout in a settlement in Suva and dropping out of school to play the sport, to becoming an Olympic champion and eventually the new Fiji captain

Fiji captain Jerry Tuwai has had to cover a fair amount of distance in life to get to where he is today. Victor Besa for The National
Fiji captain Jerry Tuwai has had to cover a fair amount of distance in life to get to where he is today. Victor Besa for The National

When Jerry Tuwai played a starring role in his country winning their first ever Olympic medal, in Rio 2016, he might have been moved to reflect on just how far he had come.

The Fijian playmaker had first learnt to play rugby using either a bottle or a tied up T-shirt on a gravel roundabout in his settlement in Suva.

He dropped out of school, and has subsequently admitted he got into “things that are against the law, things that take us to jail”.

Rugby sevens changed him. His mother and father pooled their modest income to buy him some rugby boots. The return they have seen on that investment has been vast.

He made the Fiji sevens team, and thus earned his first real income. He has been a World Sevens Series winner twice so far. There was that Olympic gold medal. Last season he was nominated to be the World Rugby sevens player of the year.

And now, captaincy.

Fiji celebrate their gold medal in rugby sevens at the Rio 2016 Olympics. Robert F Bukaty / AP Photo
Fiji celebrate their gold medal in rugby sevens at the Rio 2016 Olympics. Robert F Bukaty / AP Photo

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would captain the sevens side,” Tuwai said.

“I thank God. It is an honour for me. I am still learning, and I am thankful that, even though I am captain, there are still a lot of leaders in the team, older boys who can help me. I am blessed.”

When Osea Kolinisau, the statesmanlike leader of Fiji’s Olympic pioneers, took up a contract in the United States this summer, the team needed a new captain.

Gareth Baber, the coach, told Tuwai he was the No 1 choice to be Kolinisau’s successor.

“It was during our off-season training,” Tuwai said. “He came up to me and said, ‘Jerry, captaincy next season. It is either you, or if you don’t want to take it, I will give it to someone else.’

“First of all, I didn’t want to be captain. I have been playing for Oscar [Kolinisau] for a very long time, and I didn’t want to lead, because there are a lot of older boys I have been playing with.

“My parents and my wife told me it is a story I will tell my kids when I grow old. So I accepted it, and here I am today.”

It might not come naturally to him, but Tuwai says he is embracing the extra responsibility.

“Before, when I was just a committed teammate, I would sometimes make decisions that were not good,” he said.

“Now I am captain, I have to make the right decisions every time. The pressure is on me. So, like it or not, I should change. I have changed a lot already. This has changed me.

“A few of the boys, who I have been in camp with for five years, we still joke around like before, but the new boys do look up to me and respect me.”

Jerry Tuwai's boots have the names of his son and daughter – John and Noelani – plus his nephew Yaca Jerry Ramasima written on the heels. Victor Besa for The National
Jerry Tuwai's boots have the names of his son and daughter – John and Noelani – plus his nephew Yaca Jerry Ramasima written on the heels. Victor Besa for The National

There are visible clues to the fact life has changed for Tuwai, and that he is appreciating extra duties. Before, he used to write “knife” and “fork” on his boots.

At the Dubai Rugby Sevens this weekend, his boots have the names of his son and daughter – John and Noelani – plus his nephew Yaca Jerry Ramasima written on the heels.

“When I dropped out of school, my parents asked me what I was going to do with my life,” he said.

“I told them I want to play rugby. One weekend, they took me to a shop, in the Nike aisle, and bought me Total 90 rugby boots.

“They gave them to me and said, ‘That is your life – make something of it’. From there, I took a pen and wrote on the side of my boots ‘knife’ and ‘fork’. It means my life. From then till now, this is my life: rugby.”

If Tuwai has much to live up to in following in Kolinisau’s footsteps, his is not the only one. Baber will be overseeing his first full season as Fiji coach.

The Welshman has big boots to fill, given the achievements of his predecessor Ben Ryan, but he is excited by the task at hand.

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“It is the national sport in Fiji, and the sevens team has a place in everyone’s heart,” said Baber, who has previously coached in Hong Kong, and at Cardiff Blues in Wales.

“It is a massive part of the community and people’s lives. That takes a bit of getting used to, and you have to make changes, not all necessarily what you want.

“But it is what I want, to coach this team, to have this opportunity on the World Series, the Commonwealth Games and the World Cup. It is exactly where you want to test yourself as a coach.”

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