Too Fast To Believe



‘Now was seen, what many of those present had not believed, the expertness with which these people dodge a shot at the flash of a gun.’

In programme notes for a Scotland Test match at Murrayfield against Fiji, the BBC’s rugby commentator Ian Robertson perfectly summed up the conundrum at the heart of Fiji rugby then, now and for all time to come: ‘to win in rugby you need eight piano lifters and seven piano players. But everybody in the Fiji team wants to be a piano player.’

Robertson’s nod towards the incredible flair and joyous athleticism which is the Fiji game’s greatest strength (and enduring weakness) finds its most perfect expression in the decision of the Fiji Rugby Union to brand the 15-a-side national team as the Flying Fijians ahead of the 2003 Rugby World Cup.

I was the FRU’s marketing manager in the early 2000s and would not be telling tales out of school if I said that we, at the FRU, felt a little embarrassed, ashamed even, not to have our own brand. Standing next to Manu Samoa and Ikale Tahi and of course looking up to the All Blacks and Wallabies, we were just Fiji. Little old, no-fancy-name Fiji.

When inspiration finally came, the Flying Fijians ‘light bulb moment’ actually took almost 24 hours to power up. Strangely it was in large part thanks to a double murder that traumatised the country, and whose sheer brutality strongly harked back to Fiji’s violent pre-Christian history.

At the time, my family and I lived in the residence of the late John Scott, the Red Cross director who had been a key intermediary in the desperate Parliamentary hostage crisis set off by George Speight’s 2000 attempted coup. His family home is one of the country’s best-known colonial-era properties: overlooking the capital, it commands panoramic views from the coast towards Pacific Harbour, right across Suva to the east and Nukulau, the island prison where coup leader Speight was cast.

In July 2001 Scott and his partner had been murdered at the home we would eventually rent. Scott was immensely popular and well regarded, and more than a thousand people attended his funeral. The man eventually charged with the murders was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to the local psychiatric hospital.

To try to come to terms with this tragedy, John’s younger brother Owen visited us on several occasions at the home he had grown up in. And he shared with us a small part of the family’s incredible history stretching back to the 1870s when John and Owen’s great, great grandfather arrived as a missionary just as Fiji’s warring chiefs were ceding their country to Queen Victoria. [I can’t possibly do justice to the Scott family history and all that the four generations did to bring Fiji forward as a nation – for that you need to read Owen’s book, Deep Beyond The Reef (Penguin NZ).]

It’s important to understand that all of the hallowed trophies for which rugby teams in Fiji compete, even to this day, continue to bear testimony to the influence of colonial-era administrators and community figures who understood the appeal that this British public school sport would have in taming or at least channelling the war-like instincts of the so-called ‘natives’.

Thus, the Farebrother-Sullivan Trophy remains the country’s most sought-after provincial rugby title, equivalent to New Zealand’s Ranfurly Shield (and was even a ‘home’ question to Bill Beaumont when he was a team captain on BBC’s Question of Sport in 1983). And the Escott Shield – donated by a pre-War World One governor – remains the most important silverware a rugby club in Suva can win.

Sir Maurice Scott – John and Owen’s father – was similarly closely involved with Fiji rugby, serving as chairman and president of the FRU. Sir Maurice’s was a golden era, best remembered for Fiji’s first breakthrough appearances in the northern hemisphere: the 28-22 loss against an uncapped Wales side in 1964 and the 1970 tour of England, including the Gosforth demolition of the Barbarians, the majority of whom, playing in the British Lions a year later, would triumph in New Zealand.

But it was clear that John and Owen’s relationship with their father was more than a little complicated. Sir Maurice was for many years Fiji’s leading criminal barrister, a Member of Parliament and, later, Speaker of the Legislative Council. He was outrageous and wickedly charismatic, but also a bully and tyrant to those who deserved better, and eventually was overwhelmed by alcoholism; he died embittered and alone in 1977.

Part of the story that Owen had returned to Fiji to research was that, like many who called Fiji home – both vulagi and i-taukei – when World War Two was declared, Sir Maurice immediately volunteered to serve. In his case, as a pilot officer in the Royal Air Force.

By chance at dinner with us one night, Owen mentioned that his father’s Spitfire bore the name, ‘The Flying Fijian’, stencilled on the side.

That Flying Fijian thought lodged in some recess in my mind. [Another ‘Flying’ motif from Sir Maurice‘s story is that he would go on to marry the widow of Harold Gatty who, no less a figure than Charles Lindbergh had dubbed ‘the Prince of Navigators’, and was later the founder of Fiji Airways.]
A day later I met with Dan Lobendahn, a former Fiji rep who owned two petrol stations affiliated with BP Oil, then sponsors of the FRU. Dan was running a little late so, as I waited, I looked at the mounted photos from his playing career in the 1970s. Over the door to his office, though, was one image that really took my breath away: a 50-inch framed photo of big-striding Jo Levula taken on the 1951 tour to New Zealand; Levula’s two tries helped Fiji beat the Maori 21-14 at Athletic Park.

It was in that split second that the name on the side of Sir Maurice’s Spitfire fused in my mind with the Fijian flying up the wing at warp speed. But the full brilliance of the logo was only realised once Dominic Sansom, the country’s pre-eminent designer and graphic artist, had worked his production magic.

It is Levula’s image that is the central feature of the Flying Fijian logo: in the way that his jaw is set, his eyes are ablaze, and he’s galloping hard up the field, you can quite believe the New Zealand Herald reporter who wrote:

“[Levula’s] high-stepping action was allied to an aggressive temperament, and many a Caucasian face pales at the thunderous approach of a menacing figure whose eyes burned like the light of an express train.”

That instinctive Fijian menace and aggression is most obviously revealed in the cibi, which precedes each Test match and was written for, and first performed during Fiji’s unbeaten tour to New Zealand in 1939.

The captain of that tour – who also scored a two-point conversion in Fiji’s win over the Maori – was the high-born chief Ratu (later Sir) George Cakobau. He felt Fiji needed a suitably rip-roaring riposte to the haka that he knew the Maori would chant.

And so it was Ratu Sir George who started the rugby tradition that continues right to this day, of Fiji captains leading their countrymen into battle with the blood-chilling war-cry Nomu bai e wawa mere/ Au tokia ga ka tasere (Your defence is just waiting/To crumble when I pick it) ringing in their ears.
Ratu Sir George was the great, grandson of Ratu Seru Cakobau, whose extraordinary success in the cut-throat business of being a 19thcentury cannibal warlord unified, for the first time, the 300-odd warring islands into something approaching the country we call Fiji today. It was he who passed his self-proclaimed title, Tui Viti or King of Fiji, to Queen Victoria, a title which continues to be held by the reigning British monarch.

Ratu Seru’s Fijian nom de guerre ‘cikinovu’ (a centipede with a particularly unpleasant bite) paid homage to his warcraft for ‘he moved silently and struck painfully’. But so similar are the skill sets in rugby and warfare that ‘cikinovu’ could just as easily have been Ratu Seru’s rugby nickname (had he played the game, like his great grandson would), akin to John Jeffrey – the Great White Shark, Lewis ‘Mad Dog’ Moody or Sebastian ‘The Caveman’ Chabal.

Amongst ethnic Fijians, the vast majority of whom are Christian, their relationship with the pre-colonial past is a contradictory mix of push and pull factors: on the one hand deep respect and reverence for the traditions, structures and living culture that has been handed down from one generation to another. On the other hand, there can be embarrassment and denial, even rejection, of some of the wilder elements that – to an outsider – are still clearly relevant today when looking at how Fijians came to be so adept at rugby.

While Ratu Seru Cakobau was still a teenager – he and William Webb Ellis were born less than ten years apart – all young Fijian males would play a game called veimoli which we would recognise today as Dodgeball. Veimoli was designed to sharpen a boy’s ability to avoid, swerve around or duck under the famous throwing club known as i ula, which was one of the principal weapons of the time.

Two teams of young warriors would stand 20 metres apart, according to a 1915 account by Father Rougier, each with a pile of citrus fruit or moli to simulate the throwing club: one youth would come forward to throw and be thrown at. A hit would represent a kill, and the game continued until one set of warriors had been eliminated. Often, according to Rougier, participants were pelted so hard and accurately they were left unconscious.
If Webb Ellis did invent the game in 1825, a year before leaving Rugby School, then on the other side of the world, 10-year-old Ratu Seru Cakobau would have been beginning his training as a warrior with endless games of Dodge the Speeding Citrus Fruit.

In an extraordinary 1977 Fiji Museum paper, illustrated by the late Kolinio Moce, Fergus Clunie put all of this game-playing into a wider context:
‘It was to games of this nature that the Fijian warrior owed his well-known alert agility and dodging skill against the spears, slung stones, arrows and throwing clubs of his adversaries … the Fijian warrior did not rely on a shield or armour but depended rather on his well-developed agility and alertness.’

This skill set was critical if you wanted to survive the 1800s when Fijian clans fought endlessly against one another, back and forth across the same valleys and islands, like surging tides. This same skill also helped Fijians survive their first encounters with the White Man, even those White Men who were carrying guns instead of Bibles.

In this the Fijians were aided by deficiencies in the flintlock system which was the gun of choice for the very first Europeans to nose around Fiji waters. As Clunie wrote, ‘the flash and smoke of the priming charge in the pan was visible a split second before it ignited the main charge, and this apparently gave the alert and extremely agile warriors; accustomed from early stones and spears; enough warning to fall flat so that the shot passes harmlessly overhead.’

In 1840 the American naval officer Lieutenant Charles Wilkes was tasked to destroy a number of villages on the western island of Malolo in reprisal for some slight or other. In his 1845 published memoirs, he wrote:

‘Our party having approached within about seventy feet of the stockade, opened its fire on the fortification. Now was seen, what many of those present had not believed, the expertness with which these people dodge a shot at the flash of a gun. Those who were the most incredulous before, were now satisfied they could do this effectually.’

As the 19th century progressed (and Ratu Seru Cakobau’s grip on the country increased), flintlocks would be replaced by percussion muskets (which gave no warning flash). Even so, those troublesome Fijians could still make a soldier’s life complete misery.

Clunie reports that, ‘as late as 1876, local soldiers serving the government in the Viti Levu hill campaign [on Fiji’s largest island] complained to Captain Louis Knollys that the mountain warriors “did not fight fair, as in [Fiji’s second island] Vanua Levu, but ran backwards and forwards so that they are hard to hit.”’

That description – ceaseless, joyous almost pointless running around, zig-zagging here and there – perfectly captures the skills you still see today, incubating in the endless games of touch rugby every village plays as the sun sets, and taking full form in the 7s and 15s codes that completely dominate the Fiji sporting consciousness.

And, like the brutal game of veimoli and dozens similar, it’s those dinking, jinking, high-stepping rugby skills, that almost every child in Fiji seems to be born with, which are the reason that the team we all celebrate today is called the Flying Fijians.

Charlie Charters was marketing manager of the FRU from 2001 to 2004 and CEO of the inaugural Pacific Islanders team, and is now head of sales of MATCH Hospitality, the world’s largest sports hospitality company. And with much thanks to Dr Dick Watling (

By Charlie Charters

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