by Matt Cleary
When newspaper editors and art directors send photographers to Rugby Sevens tournaments to capture what’s called in the trade “colour”, the snappers will head to the loudest, most face-painted, big-wigged, flag-waving, chanting, cheering and singing part of the stadium.
And there they will likely find Pacific Islanders. For to be from Fiji, Samoa, Tonga or any of the island nations that dot the great archipelago in the south seas, is to follow rugby with all of one’s being. It’s a celebration of fandom. No sports fans enjoy a day out more.
And that’s why Saturday afternoon at CommBank Stadium looms as a “massive cultural experience,” according to Fijian Drua coach Mick Byrne whose team will take on fellow Super Rugby Pacific debutants and vuvale (family) Moana Pasifika.
“It’s a clash of the islands,” Byrne says. “We’ve been looking forward to this game since we knew we were playing it. This is what it’s all about; the two new teams who make it Super Rugby Pacific go on show. And our boys are really excited. No doubt Moana Pasifika are excited as well.”
That they are. “It’s a big one for us . . . the derby against our Pacific Island brothers in our inaugural seasons,” Moana Pasifika captain Sekope Kepu says.
“We’re preparing for a very physical battle. They’ve got a lot of big fellas, big athletes. And we’ll have to be top of our game. In saying that we’ve got some physical boys, too.”
Asked if his team is relishing the mate-versus-mate aspect of the clash, Byrne nods. “And if you know how these guys treat their mates on the training field, I’m sure it’ll be little different on game day. They are mates, yes. But they get respect from how hard they hit each other! I think we’re in for a bruising affair and an exciting affair,” Byrne says.
With predicted temperatures up to 27C and CommBank Stadium featuring state-of-the-art drainage, the surface should be perfect for open, running rugby.
The entertainment pre-match and in the stands should be just as compelling. Think singing, think dancing, think so many floral leis. Think big wigs on large men playing very small guitars. Think of the intensity and theatre as the Moana players stare down the traditional challenge of Drua’s Na Bole.
After the match the Drua may link arms and sing their harmonic, traditional, flat-out beautiful praise song, the one that can raise hairs on arms. And Moana may link arms and sing it with them.
Kepu, for one, cannot wait. The 36-year-old was born in Sydney and played 141 games for NSW Waratahs across 12 seasons. He will have dozens of friends and family members in the stands. “There’s my brother, my first cousins, a few in-laws, lot of friends – I’ll have to hit up the manager for some tickets!” he laughs. “It’s very nice to have family and friends in the crowd. And it’s nice for the DJ to know what sort of music to play.”
What sort of music? “Upbeat! Plenty of drums. It gets the crowd going. There’s lots of Pacific Island people in Western Sydney and we’re expecting them to come out and have a dance and support the boys. It’ll be nice to feel the vibe,” Kepu says.
Byrne says fans’ support is “enormous for us”.
“Our fans are massively passionate about the game and as such have very high expectations of performance. It’s going to be good for us to play half our season at home amongst those passionate fans. And when it becomes a regular occurrence, the world will see what Drua rugby means to the people of Fiji.
“The game Saturday will be a great show. And I’ve spoken to a few of the Moana Pasifika people and they’re really looking forward to the weekend and showcasing Pacific Islander talent,” Byrne says.
Fijian Drua v Moana Pasifika
CommBank Stadium, Gates Open 1:30pm
Kick-off at 2:35pm