From Fijitimes Online (12 October 2006)

An island, rugby and hope

by Fred Wesley

Freddy Kafoa, the president of the Raesea Sports Club ... eager to see Rotuma's rugby players get their break

FREDDY Kafoa cuts a pensive figure in his office on the second floor of Pacific House in Suva. His hair is neatly cropped. Above him, two paintings hang on facing walls. There's a brief sense of serenity, cast in an obviously well used office.

The picture on the right wall, facing the Suva Harbour, he tells me, was painted off a photo he took at home in Rotuma.

Turquoise blue waters seem to wash up on a white sandy beach front, spreading out to two little islands a few metres out to sea. The backdrop is a clear blue sky. This is Noatau, sitting on the eastern end of the island of Rotuma. The other painting is of the split island of Hofliua, which is on the western end of the island. The curious looking island is split right down the middle, as if a giant bread knife was used to slice through it, cutting it in half. A boulder hangs in the middle of the split part of the island, with the sea rushing through, basically dividing the island in two. The boulder serves as a sort of bridge linking the two halves.

These are constant reminders of a home he last visited in 1996. They are also there to provide him with inspiration.

Freddy has a dream. Its one shared by many of his kin. He yearns to see more Rotumans making it into the top levels of rugby union. Gabriel Penjueli and Maka Kafoa are the only Rotumans to have ever represented Fiji in rugby union. Gaby as a frontrower, playing at hooker, and Maka as a lockforward, in 1994, if my memory serves me right. Then there was Victor Atalifo some years before that, who played for the Presidents XV as a frontrower.

In rugby league, Ian Sagaitu represented the Fiji Bati, playing at hooker. Hed come out of the Nausori Bulldogs which was under Iosefo Bele and Hari Karan back in 1992.

The last time I'd seen Victor was back on Rotuma some years ago. He was then working for the then National Bank of Fiji based at Ahau. Home, for me then, was a few minutes walk downhill, at Jolmea.

Maka and Gaby were both still playing the game they love, during last weekends annual Rotuma sports day, at the Suva Grammar School grounds. Gaby for the New Zealand Fijians and Maka for Suva-based Sarafui. The last I'd heard of Ian was that he was plying his trade in Australia.

But of the new crop of players, Rico Panapasa stands out as the brightest light in Rotuma's rugby aspirations. The young forward was recently named in the Fiji HPU squad. His name inches out pride in Freddy. You can see it in his face. Its like a beacon of hope. But Freddy reckons these players are just the tip of the ice-berg.

"Bro, I think we have heaps of talented players who have the potential to make it into the national team," he offers. "All they need is an opportunity to get there. But its not going to be possible this way, playing in annual events like the sports day."

His dream involves the formation of a team to be made up of top Rotuman players and affiliated to the Suva Rugby Union.

"Theres no worry about support. I'm sure if a Rotuman team plays in the local competition, we're bound to have Rotumans from all over Suva coming over to cheer them on every Saturday. I think the important thing is the opportunity.

"Right now, we have players playing for local club sides. But when you really think about it, its basically about only one Rotuman player playing in a team dominated by Fijians. The chances of that one player being recognised or picked out is rather slim.

"But think about the impact a team made up of 15 Rotuman players playing in the local competition. Think about the impact they could have on selectors. I'd like to think that we can push for this to happen. It needs to happen for the betterment of our players. It needs to happen for our players to attract the attention of selectors.

"Who knows, with Waisale Serevi making trips around the country to select players for the sevens squad, maybe, sometime in the future, he could even select a winger from Rotuma or a forward.

The former Raiwaqa player is optimistic Rotumans have the potential and physique to mix it with the big boys of the code. "I hope to push this idea through," he shrugs.

A strong rugby competition over the weekend at the Grammar School grounds only served to inspire him further. Satarua, a team made up of players from around Nadera defeated New Zealand Rotumans to take out the rugby title. Other club sides that competed in the competition were Freddys Raesea, and Sarafui, one of the oldest clubs in the competition.

"Sarafui used to play in the Suva competition at one time," Freddy offers.

I'd gone over to the Grammar Grounds with a touch of trepidation on Saturday. I hadn't played rugby in ages. But having played rugby league, big John reassured me that everything would be alright.

"Just remember the codes and the moves, he offered. It's not that difficult.

But the first game was a blur, with the old body huffing and puffing around the field, barely regaining enough energy to pack down for scrums. One thing stood out. Competition was tough.

I remember having watched Rotuma play in a local competition with other island zone teams some years ago. I felt, at the time, the thought was a good one. It exposed players on the island to a different level of rugby.

Freddy's idea would need to be supported by the people of Rotuma for the betterment of their rugby. The calibre of players who took to the field over the weekend stand as testimony to that need. But at the end of the day, the onus really would lie on the shoulders of the people of Rotuma to take the first step. In this age of sports development, it might even be an opportunity to shrug off the shackles of confinement and offer an opportunity to break out into a whole new world.

Freddy's ideas are good. It would also be a good idea to get Rotuma back into the Island Zone competition. But for that to happen, the governing FRU would have to jump on board. What struck me on Monday, after the final game was a remark by Charlie. He stuck out his hand, shook mine, and smiled... "See you next year, bro."

It's a line Freddy is keen to do away with. But to do that means the realisation of his dream. And that's going to need enthusiasm, support, commitment and dedication.