The South Pacific is peopled with nesians, Poly, Micro and Mela, and off in its northwest corner is Fiji, a melting pot for them all. The pot cliché is especially apt, because not too long ago Fijians were still dining on one another, but now they joke about all that. In fact, a group of Fijian sports who were in the United States last week preferred to talk about rugby, which is much more civilized and only slightly less gentle. The Fijians are quite good at rugby. Last June they scored 500 points in five matches at the South Pacific Games, which is something like Georgia Tech beating Cumberland 222-0 five times in a row.
The United States? Well, the game is played here, too, but not very much and supposedly not very well. Still, the Metropolitan New York Rugby Union All-Stars wanted a match with the Fiji National Team, which was on a world tour, and the Fijians obliged, the first national rugby side ever to do so. Once the match was struck, however, the New Yorkers began to visualize the Fijians as the world's biggest people. Though they knew nothing of Fijian history their fears were unintentionally tinged with sick humor. "They'll eat us alive," was the word around Manhattan's East Side rugby bars, where bandages and bruises run a close second to beer and booze.
The night before the game New York's O'Mahoneys, Donellis and Gustafsons hosted the Naucabalavus, Batibisagas and Tokairavuas at a welcome dinner. Some of the Fijians were statuesque; their features and impassive stares "bore a startling resemblance to those of the famous Easter Island monoliths, and at first they were hardly more animated. Then someone mentioned rugby, the magic word, and suddenly the Fijians were articulate, engaging guests.
"Nice bola," they kept saying when a waitress passed through the room. In Fiji, bola is a slang term for girl. Many of the visitors had blue parallel marks tattooed on their wrists, "to keep demons away," said Sela Toga, the team captain. "My grandfather put them on me when I was a boy," he said, smiling, "but none of us really believe in them anymore." All had attended English-language schools in Fiji, a British colony until recently, and both sides agreed that should New York make a respectable showing, oh, say a 49-3 loss, then other world rugby powers would soon be stopping by for a game or two.
December 7, 1970
Next day was the coldest of the fall. It was 32° at noon, and the game was to be at night in Downing Stadium on windswept Randall's Island in the East River. In Fiji when it drops to 60° they start worrying about a return of the Ice Age, and some of the visitors were wearing overcoats for the first time in their lives. Rugby, of course, is played in shorts, and at game time it was 27° with a 15-mile-an-hour wind. Many of the 1,500 at the game wondered how all this would affect the Fijians' spectacular passing game. Even so, few gave New York a chance.
"They must be bluffing," someone said after a scoreless 10 minutes and a slow Fijian start. Then suddenly New York's Art Sprinkel grabbed the ball at midfield and took it 35 yards down the sideline. There were a few lateral passes and Joe Cody took it over for a try, the rugby equivalent of a touchdown, and New York led 3-0.
Sprinkel is a fourth-year medical student at Columbia, and unlike most of the Americans, who are former college football players, his sport was basketball. This seems to give him an advantage. Forward passing is illegal in rugby, and Sprinkel always appears to know where to locate a receiver. "In football you look ahead," his teammate Ed Malmstrom explained, "and you try to set up your blockers. In rugby you've got to know who's behind you."
A few minutes later New York's Geoff Clarke, an accountant from Cornwall, England, got a three-point penalty kick, and no one believed it but there it was: New York 6, Fiji 0.
"Any minute they'll destroy us." a New York fan said, almost as Josateki Radrodro, a Fijian government clerk, burst down the sidelines for a try, and it was 6-3. Then Nasivi Ravouvou, a sugarcane farmer like many of his teammates, spurted 50 yards for another try. He converted, and when the 40-minute half had ended it was 8-6 Fiji.
Earlier, New York's John Barnes had made a prophetic remark. "They'll beat us by a lot with their passing," he said, "or we'll win by a little." Fiji did not forget its passing game; it just didn't work in the Ice Age.
"I've never seen so many white jerseys all together," said John Tait, a selector of the New York team. "Whenever one Fijian gets the ball, the whole team is lined out behind him ready to receive." And Fiji did flip the ball around like popping corn, but nearly all its rallies ended with the ball bouncing off frigid fingers. Fiji also had far greater speed than New York, but this was somewhat neutralized by harder American tackling, learned in football, and in New York's rugged, close-in play in the scrumdowns, rugby's most familiar formation.
In a scrumdown the ball is thrown on the ground in the midst of a huddle of eight forwards from each side. The forwards use their feet to pass the ball out to the waiting backs. They are very strange sights for the newcomer to rugby, these scrumdowns, and the whole thing resembles nothing so much as a 16-headed 32-legged half-human centipede with gas pains.
By the second half it was 24° and even the New Yorkers were blue; the Fijians, in mid-nightmare, had spent the five-minute break thinking warming thoughts of home and tending to bleeding legs. There is no padding allowed in rugby, and the cold, dead grass surface of Downing Stadium might as well have been cement.
As the second half began, New York's Clarke made his second penalty kick, and it was 9-8 New York. Then another sugarcane farmer named Josateki Sovau scored a try to make it 11-9 Fiji, and there it stayed until, with six minutes left, Geoff Clarke (who else?) made his third penalty kick and the score was 12-11 New York as the final whistle blew.
"Rugby all over the world will awaken to America now," Tait said, happily including Clarke among the Americans. "They'll see we're not just a wild bunch going around kicking people's heads off."
It was clearly the biggest moment for U.S. rugby since 1924, when a group of ex-college football players from California won the Olympic gold medal from France, against 20-to-1 odds. Deaths and injuries had soured Californians on college football around the turn of the century, so the players had turned to rugby, entering and actually winning their first Olympics in 1920. There was no Olympic rugby after 1924 but today more than 250 U.S. colleges have sides and it is the fastest-growing amateur team sport in the country. Little League rugby has begun in New York's Westchester County, and ex-college football players yearning for physical contact find it an ideal outlet. The New York All-Stars were chosen from eight area teams composed of doctors, salesmen, accountants, executives and visiting Britons.
Following the game Dr. Felix Emberson, Fiji's tour manager, graciously complimented his hosts at Les Pyrenees Restaurant on Manhattan's West Side. "From what you showed us this evening," he told them, "your players needn't fear disgrace against any side in the world."
"We were proud to be on the field with the Fijians," said Ray Cornvill, the New York coach. "We knew they ran and passed a lot, and we could never keep up with them there, but we had more power and we drove right in. Still, if we had run the ball wide open they would have laid 40 points on us. I wouldn't want to take them on in warm weather."
Before dinner 22-year-old Semesa K. Sikivou, a Fijian civil servant, approached New York Captain Richard Donelli, a husky dentist who quarter-backed the Columbia University football team in 1958-59 and is the son of Buff Donelli, the onetime Columbia coach. Sikivou and Donelli discussed their common interest.
"You pass without even looking where the ball is going," Donelli said. "How do you know someone will be there?"
"We practice touch rugby," Sikivou said, grinning, "and we don't like to be touched."
"Well, your speed is overwhelming," Donelli replied, "and your whole side is in top shape." Donelli is in pretty good shape himself, at least now. He did not mention that in June of 1969 a cardiologist friend discovered a hole between two chambers of his heart. Donelli was 32 then, and the doctor gave him 10 years without an operation. That wasn't long enough to play rugby, he decided, and eight weeks later he was wearing a Teflon patch in his heart. Two months after that he was playing the game again, which tells you something about rugby men.
Rugby affairs are usually pretty raucous, but when dinner began the room was curiously quiet. The New Yorkers seemed almost embarrassed at having won. Some apologized for the weather. Few of the Fijians spoke: many sat with their heads down and ate little; some still wore their overcoats. They obviously were tired from their London flight the previous day. Finally, someone asked the Fijians to sing, a talent for which they are famous throughout the rugby world. The Fijians rose reluctantly from their chairs, a little self-conscious. They began softly. Their voices were unexpectedly sweet, and as they sang of home, 8,000 miles away, they smiled wanly and their voices rose in harmony. They had been away from Fiji for two months. In that time Captain Toga's wife had given birth to their first child, a son. The Fijians were clearly homesick—Kiniviliame Nalatu, Setareki Tamanivalu, who looks like a king, and all the rest—and as they began a song called Isalei their smiles grew wider and some swung their heads to its rhythms. Isalei, one of them said, meant farewell.