For the outside world it feels like Rugby in Fiji has always been a dominating force in world. This has not always been the case. The game of rugby that we know and love was founded in 1823 by a young William Webb Ellis it wasn’t until 61 years later would this incredible sport reach the Pacific Islands.
As a side note the first rugby club in New Zealand wasn’t established until 1870. On 14th May 1870 the first official game of rugby ever to be played in New Zealand took place in Nelson at the Botanics.
It wasn’t until 1884 that rugby reached Fiji and changed the lives of the islanders forever. In a place where a sport has near religious status let’s take a look at a brief history of rugby in Fiji.
Fiji is a rarity, it is one of only a handful of nations where rugby is the primary sport. They share this niche with New Zealand, Wales, Tonga and Samoa; coincidently their biggest rivals too!
In 1884 rugby was first played in Fiji by European and Fijian soldiers on Viti Levu Island where they were stationed for the Native Constabulary at Ba.
By 1900 rugby games were a regular occurrence and even started getting coverage in local media. Admittedly many of the players were military expats; the first rugby competition was created in 1904 and involved a group of civil service personal, constabulary and a couple of locals too.
In 1913 a plumber named Paddy Sheehan from Dunedin and the ex-Otago captain came to Suva to help build the Grand Pacific Hotel. He and his team clocked that there was a need for a formal organisation to oversee what was currently a talented by informal sporting set up.
Sheehan created the Pacific Club and by the end of their first AGM three more clubs had been created and in turn the Fiji RFU. The three other clubs formed were the Services, the Cadets and Rewa. These clubs only played in Suva at this point.
In light of the creation of the Fiji RFU in 1914 the ‘native competition’ was established. This involved local Fijian players led by Ratu Epeli Ganilau. The first ‘native’ clubs were Taipou, Tarirere, Hill and Ofisa (Police) RFC. Within a year the ‘native’ clubs, known as the Fiji Native Union, had joined forces with the Fiji RFU to create a national governing body.
Fiji’s first international match took place in August of 1925 in Apia in Samoa. The kicked off at 7am so that the players had enough time to shower and change and be in work on time. The field also had a giant tree on the halfway line!
Fast forward to 1938 and the New Zealand Maori team flew to Fiji to play against the Fiji XV and the Fiji European teams. Many of the Fijian players played in boots for the first time ever in order to honour their international opponents. However at semi-regular intervals during match boots were flung into touch in favour of playing barefoot. A preference still held by many Fijian players.
In 1939 Fiji made the history books by playing heading to tour in New Zealand for an eight match series and coming away unbeaten. Incredibly they beat the New Zealand team seven times with one draw. Again, many of these players still stepped out onto the field barefoot, much to the delight and amazement of the Kiwi crowd.
By 1971 rugby in Fiji has exploded. The Fiji RFU was renamed the Fiji Rugby Union (FRU) and there were 750 clubs registered with a total of 10,000 players across 300 Pacific islands.
1977 to 1984 were an epic eight years for Fiji. Not only did they win the Hong Kong Seven twice but also beat the British & Irish Lions at Buckhurst Park More. In 1982 they beat Vancouver XV which kick-started a 15-match winning streak unheard of at the time.
From 1987 to 1995 rugby in Fiji went from triumph to flop. At the first ever World Cup in 1987 Fiji powered through to the quarter-finals before being knocked out by France. In a steady downwards trajectory Fiji failed to even qualifying for the 1995 World Cup.
In the last decade Fijian rugby has vastly improved, particularly in the sevens game a code that Fiji has dominated from day dot.
In 2006 the Fijian women’s team played their first ever test match. In their first game, against Samoa, they lost 15-27 but upped their game in the following match against Tonga smashing them 52-5.
At the 2016 Summer Olympics the Fiji sevens men’s team won gold in a historic win against Team GB; this was the first time sevens was played at the Olympics.
Both the men’s and the women’s rugby scenes in Fiji are developing greatly and with the support of events like The Fijian Cup and the talent development infrastructure it brings we hope to play our part in raising the profile of Fijian rugby world wide.
Our aim is to raise this tiny island nation up to be greater than we could ever dream, to make its mark on the world’s sporting stage.