The coveted silverware that unites Fijian people

Koli Sewabu and Sailosi Naiteqe Sr after the game on Saturday. Picture: SUPPLIED

SANTA Claus came four months ahead of his December schedule to Naitasiri on the weekend.

On Saturday, at a packed Ratu Cakobau Park, he awarded the province Fiji’s coveted rugby silverware ­— the Farebother Trophy, now known as the HFC Bank Farebrother Challenge Trophy.

The Koli Sewabu-coached hillmen keep the trophy this year after winning the last challenge on Saturday with a 27 – 13 victory against challengers Tailevu.

He joins the list of Naitasiri coaches had won the trophy including Ratu Manasa Radrotini (1998) and Aminiasi Noa (2002).

The trophy is the most wanted by local rugby unions. Since 1924, when it was given to the Fiji Rugby Union by JJ Sullivan and AS Farebrother, the Farebrother Trophy has united provinces, Fijians, and helped promote Fijian rugby. It still does today despite the name change.

But for Naitasiri, the return of Fiji’s top rugby prize on the weekend after 16 years is Christmas come early.

Tailevu, coached by former national rep and coach Inoke Male, swallowed the bait dangled by the highlanders in playing fast and very physical encounter.

But like old warhorses, Naitasiri, with fitness, anticipation and experience, played to structure. The hillmen absorbed the Tailevu punches and slowly unrolled their tactics until the 80th minute. They are the champions after surviving the onslaught. They did not panic. They played to plan despite lacking precision, but the result mattered. They now have the trophy after scoring a brace in each half and led 12-10 at the break.

A week earlier, at the same park, Naitasiri beat former champions Nadroga 26-17. A week earlier it wrested the trophy from last year’s champion Namosi 21-20.

With the season ending, Sewabu now has a bigger assignment — how to keep the trophy next year, especially with Nadroga expected to return with a killer mission with its cupboard empty this Christmas. For the naitas, no rugby silverware in the cabinet means no meaningful Christmas.

“It has been an amazing journey and we thank the Lord for his leadership and guidance, especially for me personally and for us, as a team,” Sewabu said.

“The Lord is the source of our strength. We had a lot of ups and downs throughout the season and it did not really start off well. But we managed to regroup, put our differences aside, came together and achieve something like this for the people of Naitasiri.”

In Fiji, rugby is almost a religion. When it is vanua-based, the chiefs and the people are the rulers. The coaches and the players have to perform.

Wins are expected at all times and at all cost. No excuse expected. Either you shape up or ship out. And at times, vanua politics dictate how rugby is played.

“It is always difficult when you are involved with the vanua,” Sewabu continued.

“There are so much expectations. If you are clear with your goals, your vision and set some good expectations and allow everyone to do their roles, it is easier to achieve your target.”

The former Flying Fijian left behind the luxurious New Zealand life after rugby to return home to help upcoming promising Naitasiri rugby players taste what he once enjoyed internationally.

“I had always wanted to coach to help young people. As a family, we made some sacrifices and commitments to come here from New Zealand, not only for rugby coaching, but also for our kids to go through the Fijian experience like growing up in the village with relatives and knowing their roots and vanua. As parents, that is very important to us.

“Looking back, it has been worth the commitment and the sacrifice, especially when you achieve something like winning the Farebrother Trophy which no Naitasiri team has achieved in the past 16 years,” the former trophy winner said.

Sewabu did not start well against the vanua rugby politics. He wanted to quit as soon as he started.

It would have been a waste considering the experience and the knowledge this former Fiji loseman extracted from the land where rugby is religion — New Zealand, and the world champions.

“It’s a matter of building relationships and in the bose ni yasana, I showed a glimpse of our plans and what we want to achieve. When we received the backing of the chiefs and the vanua, it made my role easier,” he said.

“Things did not go well in the first few weeks and I opted to resign, but I was asked by the chiefs to come back and continue because they saw what we achieved last year.

“Another difficulty is that the expectations are so high that we want to win straightaway. We are trying to get them to understand that winning is a process. We need to set a system and process first, get the foundation right and the rewards will come in later.”

The reward is still being celebrated throughout the province, which by last year has a population of 177,678 and the second most populous province
in Fiji after Ba, and the most mountainous.

Saturday’s win set a provincial party. Nausori, town to Naitasiri, Rewa and Tailevu, was full after the win. The celebration continued into the night, in watering holes, villages, at kava sessions and at homes. Thanksgiving services were held in churches yesterday.

The people are happy because they selected one of their sons who returned from abroad with an obsession to see his province succeed. Sewabu also wanted to be a beacon to young Naitasiri people.

“Get the house in order and the win will come and it includes players’ welfare and their families.

“We had some amazing people this year who lifted their hands up and donated financially. There is another group which looks after the welfare of players. They conduct fundraising to look after the players, especially when the team is in camp. We have players who come from the highlands. They are farmers and they leave their families to play for Naitasiri, so it’s the little ways and help that we do to thank them and their families. Obviously when we win, the vanua wins too.”

Sewabu won because he planned well and put the plan into action.

“We worked on a three-year development plan. It’s been two years now and we are starting to reap some rewards. The difficulty now is using players when they get contracts and the challenge is to develop young players coming through. I think with the good system in place, we should be able to start from where we left off this season and continue to build and maintain some consistency for rugby in the province.

“There are few players who are reaching their peaks.

“They are in their late 20s and 30s, some are in the Fijian Drua Koli squad, and Jale Railala has gone overseas to play for Brisbane City and two in the Fiji under-20.

“The average age for the team is 20 and that is good, especially with what we have achieved and what will achieve in the future.

“I want to thank the Lord, the chiefs for their support and confidence in me, the past coaches and players who came to support. It made a big
difference.

“We talked about unity because with it success will come.

“We have won, and as a coach I am very, very happy,” Sewabu said.