Fijians (from left) Vilitatii Dakili, Luke Seru, Taniela Tuirabe and Peni Raivalitia spent three months in Luxembourg
Photo: Patricia Pitsch/Maison Moderne
Coming to Luxembourg marked a series of firsts for four Fijian teenagers who were invited by Rugby Club Luxembourg for a three-month exchange in 2018.
It was the first time they had left Fiji, their first time on a plane and, by the time they landed over 16,000 kilometres away at Findel airport, their first time seeing snow.
The latter provided arguably the biggest shock, because the temperature never falls below 10°C in Fiji. “We thought that snow would be really hard. But when we touched it, it was soft. After training our hands were numb,” Peni Raivalitia recalls.
The young men, all aged under 18, stayed with host families and studied in the English section at Lycée Michel Lucius. Arriving on 10 January, they began training with RCL under-18s the following day and two of them played their first game for the club on their third day.
Bringing song to the game
While they eventually adjusted to the cold--the club helped kit them out with boots and warm clothing--they joked they missed the Fijian sun in Luxembourg.
But for the people whose paths they crossed, the polite young players seemed to have brought the sun with them. They offered tribal gifts for their host families, taught their new team mates valuable rugby skills, coached junior players and introduced an element one rarely hears in rugby except during international games: singing.
Back in Fiji where rugby is the national sport, played by over 10% of the population, singing to God before and after each game is commonplace. In Luxembourg, they had even convinced their teammates to join in.
The act gives a striking insight into life in Fiji, where almost two thirds of the population are of the Christian faith. Education was only made freely available in 2008, when the players were seven. In 2013, 28% of the population was living below the national poverty line.
The four, who are part of a rugby academy in Fiji, were put in touch with RCL via former Harlequins winger and current actor Danny Ligairi-Badham, who has set up the Barefoot Project, collecting unwanted football boots and trainers to send to Fiji and Kenya. The actor organised a similar exchange for two Kenyan players in the spring.
“The Fijians play barefoot and have nothing but God, family and rugby,” Ligairi-Badham told Delano. “The Kenyan children have less: no fresh water, nothing. I’m glad I could be of help and with my support and ideas, give them opportunities.”
New opportunities and experiences were not lacking. The players all talked fondly of their time at school in Luxembourg. “My favourite subject is English. I like poems very much,” Luke Seru explained.
And they will never forget a chance encounter during a visit to an open training at Racing Metro in Paris, with their heroes, former All Blacks players Dan Carter and Joe Rokocoko. “They signed some rugby balls for us. The next day they invited us to visit them at their home,” Taniela Tuirabe smiled.
The four have since returned to Fiji to finish their education in the hope of returning to Europe to study and play rugby again in future.