Middle of February 2000. I arrive in Fiji, set to officiate at a long awaited Rugby Sevens tournament, the sixth of ten events that year in the iRB series. The country hosts very few international competitions of significance, and there is a real buzz as a result.
I check in to my downtown accommodation in Suva, a shipping port and the capital city. By late in the afternoon, the tropical conditions, temperatures of 30C with high humidity, ease slightly. I venture out for some exercise, going for an gentle run in order to acclimatize.
A few blocks later, I come across Albert Park.
The park, opened in 1880, sits near the ocean, in close proximity to the Parliament buildings and the Grand Pacific Hotel. Swaying palm trees ring multiple fields and the covered stand. Heavily used for sport of all descriptions, it is also the site for national celebrations and visits by foreign dignitaries such as Queen Elizabeth and the Pope.
The vast expanse even once doubled as an airstrip, having provided a runway back in 1928. Then, the famous Southern Cross becomes the first plane to manage a trans-Pacific crossing, hopscotching from California to Australia via refueling stops in Hawaii and Oceania.
Today, the ground is choc-a-bloc with people of all ages. Soccer, cricket and touch rugby are in full swing. Others in attendance, though not playing, soak up the sunshine, relax and watch the action.
Tucked away, down in one corner, a dozen youngsters, perhaps 12 or 13 years old, choose sides. All in shorts and bare feet, one team stripped to the waist, the other sporting a variety of t-shirts and singlets. Their rugby ball has certainly seen better days, battered and bruised and, given the passage of time, more round than oval. I can't make out any lines or markers on their patch of grass, but all the participants seem aware of the boundaries.
They are playing a variation of “tip touch.” If a player with the ball is caught in possession, the other team takes over. Space is at an absolute premium, as defenders rush forward in a line, looking to stop a try by forcing an error or completing a tag. The game mirrors a high speed version of keep away.
Indeed, the handling skills on display are quite remarkable, as the boys resort to any and all measures not to be caught with or give away the ball. Even when under considerable pressure, they manage to flick away cheeky passes at the very last possible second. Add in instinctive support running, sidesteps, dummies, switches, loops, one handed off loads and grubber kicks. No doubt like kids the world over, they look to emulate their national team heroes.
I am shaken out of my reverie by Joeli. Clearly the group ringleader, perhaps intrigued by my Rugby Canada training top, he inquires if I would like to join in. I decide I will, if only to to see their considerable talent up close. I am not disappointed. I am clearly the least capable player by some margin.
As the session draws to a close, I ask if the boys plan to attend the Sevens on the weekend. They nod enthusiastically. They are confident the Flying Fijians, led by the legendary Waisale Serevi, will be too strong for arch-rival New Zealand. I tell Joeli that I will leave some general admission tickets at the gate. And that I will look for him and his friends again.
The iRB tournament duly kicks off two days later. Sixteen teams battle for supremacy. A capacity crowd of 15,000 fills the national stadium’s main stand and surrounding embankments. I am hopeful that Canada might spring a surprise and reach at least the Cup semi-final round, but it is not to be. Instead, it quickly becomes clear that the hosts and the All Blacks will contest the championship.
I am thrilled to be appointed to referee this final, and certainly enjoy the match. The hosts cause a stir, at least with the television broadcasters, by delaying their scheduled arrival on the pitch for several minutes. However, the Kiwis make light of any supposed inconvenience. With captain Eric Rush to the fore, they dominate from the kickoff and register a convincing 31-5 victory.
Despite the unexpectedly heavy defeat, the home supporters remain in good voice, before gathering en masse for a half hour walk home or to the city centre. I join the throng, rather than wait out the ever growing traffic jam near the main gate. Suddenly, to my delight, I find Joeli and his gang at my shoulder. They jabber away, form a phalanx of sorts as we negotiate the crowd, apparently happy to be in the company of the visitor who whistled at the tournament.
Too quickly, two decades somehow slide by. My refereeing career comes to an end, and, with it, opportunities to travel the globe.
I fondly recall the Fiji trip. And, with the passage of time, it is not the actual Sevens experience that lingers in my memory, but rather images of the boys and their “tip” game at Albert Park. The invitation to join them. Reminders of the flair and natural gifts on display, of the beaming smiles, of the peals of laughter.
Of friends, gathered together, footloose and free. Playing for the sheer joy of it.
I definitely miss such occasions, the random nature of them. Especially during the dislocation of the past ten months, with sport and so much else, at all levels, thoroughly compromised by the coronavirus pandemic.
And now in a new year already looking a lot like 2020.