WATCH: Why the Drua's NRC success has shown Fijians "nothing is impossible"

NRC
by Iain Payten

Long before the Fijian Drua were a lethal rugby team, a Fijian Drua was a lethal warship. A legendary warship, even.

When Europeans were slowly crossing the world in huge hulled vessels, Fijian sailors cruised throughout the Pacific Islands in doubled-hulled nDrua, otherwise known as Waqa Tabu or “Sacred Canoe”.

You’ll find some of this sounds familiar: Drua were massive craft but were also legendary among western seafarers for their incredible speed. 

A Drua didn’t tack, or turn, like a regular boat but instead “shunted” - which means the bow would become the stern. With the same basic design, the forward would simply become the back and vice-versa. 

Imposing yet agile, Drua fleets helped Fijian warriors and traders cross the seas, fight for their people and open up new horizons.

It is hard to think of any better named rugby sides in history than the Fijian Drua.

Tomorrow, with the image of one those famous boats on their chest, the Fijian Drua side will run onto Churchill Park in Lautoka as hosts of the 2018 NRC Grand Final.

They’ll face Queensland Country in a decider sure to entertain and delight the expected 7000-plus crowd.

The two sides have comfortably been the best attacking sides in the NRC and as you want in a Grand Final, victory will be well-earned.

But for the Drua in particular, a NRC premiership title in only their second season would not only be a remarkable achievement, it would be a huge source of pride for the rugby-mad nation.

With a vast majority of their top players playing elsewhere in the world, here is a team of local and mostly amateur Fijian players taking on, and beating, the best in Australia.

“The Drua means a lot of things. It is a symbol of our ancestors finding their way, just to reach here in Fiji. They used the Drua,” star fly-half Alivereti Veitokani told RUGBY.com.au.

“It means a lot to my family and friends, and the country of Fiji. It gives a lot of opportunities for the local players here in Fiji, to put in their mind nothing is impossible. Just to motivate them and put in their mind everything we do, we can achieve it.”

The conundrum of Fiji rugby had been increasingly obvious for decades. 

Though a production line of brilliantly gifted rugby players, the lack of opportunities to play XVs and earn a living in Fiji meant most top players left to play in leagues around the world; mostly in Europe.

Many returned to wear the famous white jersey in Tests but a good number chose to represent other countries too, including Australia, where the superior salaries could set up their families for life.

It is a reflection of the nature of the Fijian people that none of those players were ever shunned; indeed they remain immensely proud of players like Henry Speight, Tevita Kuridrani, Marika Koroibete and Lote Tuqiri.

Perhaps the more disturbing trend to emerge was agents and professional clubs in Europe scouting Fiji youngsters and taking them offshore. 

But the re-birth of the NRC in Australia in 2014 gave a window to finally let those future Fijian stars stay at home and make their way.

Informal talks with a receptive Rugby Australia about including a Fiji team progressed to the creation of the Drua at the Pacific Working Group in 2016.

Funded by the Fiji Rugby Union, the Fiji government and World Rugby, the best “on-island” players were contracted (albeit modestly) and in 2017 the team played its first season in the NRC.

Former Waratahs coach Chris Hickey acted as a consultant, and former NSW lock Chris Thomson came on board as well as the team’s general manager.

Respected coach Senirusi Seruvakula was recruited to lead the team.

“The Drua program was put in place through a vision form the Fijian Rugby Union, World Rugby, the Pacific Rugby Players Association, and with the assistance of Rugby Australia, to develop and educate indigenous players and staff in a high performance environment,” Thomson said.

“Certainly the on-field success (this year) has shown the hard work that everybody has put in behind the scenes, to continue to grow the next Flying Fijians.

“It gives them hope, it gives them opportunity. But it also educates the Fijian public that there is now an on-island pathway for indigenous players. But not only just players, but indigenous staff members as well.”

The team did well in 2017 and won four games, some handsomely. But with some of the team - who all still work - having never been on a plane before, the demands of travel and an elite competition saw them struggle on the road.

They made the semi-finals but lost to Queensland Country.

This season, with another year under their belt, the frailties dropped away. They lost just one game in seven and were, at times, almost unstoppable with a game of high skill, high pace and high physicality. 

Leading the way has been a man that Thomson says exemplifies the goals of the Drua program: Alivereti “Freddy” Veitokani.

In pink boots, the electric no.10 has shown incredible skill and athleticism and is now seen as a lock for inclusion for the Flying Fijian Test team’s World Cup squad. 

And he won’t be alone. Where John McKee only used two on-island players in his 31-man 2015 World Cup squad, he recently included eight of the Drua in his November internationals tour squad.

“Freddy is the perfect example of what this program is about. He came through the sevens pathway system into the Flying Fijians, into Fijian Drua and then gaining selection for the Flying Fijians,” Thomson said.

“And then hopefully he goes onto to gain a professional contract somewhere in the world.”

The Drua's success has captivated the nation; so much so Prime Minister Frank Bairamaraina this week presented the team with their jerseys for the Grand Final.

Financially, too, the Drua are kicking goals. One year ahead of schedule, the Drua is commercially sustainable and World Rugby - and Rugby AU - are now talking about funding the addition of another Pacific Islands team like Samoa or Tonga into the NRC.

Veitokani, who like many Fijian rugby players works for the government and this year graduated as a corrections officer, says the NRC 2018 season has been a huge one for him, and his team. 

And it’s not finished yet.

“It has been a big year for me in the Fijian Drua team, building up my experience. I have been learning a lot and improving, in my rugby field career and also help me going for the Flying Fijians,” he said.

“All of us have been working hard together and we had a target to reach the final. And not just make the final, but to win it this year.

“It means a lot, it brings family and relatives and has also helped the people here in Fiji come together and enjoy our Grand Final this year.”