Waisale Serevi is a standard-bearer for rugby in Fiji and a pioneer of the sevens format, but he wasn’t always such a big presence.
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He had very little support as a child growing up in the Fijian coastal capital of Suva, and had to find his own way to the top, independent of a proper coaching structure.
Blessed with a magical side-step and unique ball-handling skills that, at the time, seemed otherworldly, Serevi played a brand of rugby that went against the grain. Unorthodox and risky, it went against the maxim of “playing the percentages” but at the same time opened up the sport to fresh ideas and a new way of playing that has helped carry it forward.
There have been better and more successful players, but few can claim to be as influential as Serevi.
He went on to enjoy a decorated 21-year dual code international rugby career that saw him score 376 points in 39 caps for the Flying Fijians between 1989 and 2003, appearing at the 1991, 1999, and 2003 Rugby World Cups.
It is in the sevens arena, though, where Serevi’s name carries real weight, having played in the 1993, 1997, 2001, and 2005 Rugby World Cup Sevens, leading Fiji to victory in 1997 and 2005.
“Winning the Rugby World Cup Sevens with Fiji in 1997 and 2005 were the proudest moments of my career,” Serevi tells Sport360°. “We didn’t have a lot of financial support. To win the World Cup and beat bigger teams that are paid millions, when we were paid $20 a day, they were the happiest times of my life.”
Pushed to pick the one that was most satisfying, he plumped for 2005’s 29-19 win over New Zealand, and it’s easy to see why.
“2005 was interesting because we were written off. We brought in older players, aged 29 and 30+. Everyone was coming back to help the national team because sevens rugby was not doing too well in Fiji at the time,” said Serevi, who scored a try in the final. “We were called back to play but were written off by a lot of coaches and journalists who said we were too old. We won it despite all the odds against us.”
After winning that tournament, Serevi was appointed the national team’s coach, taking them to the 2005/06 World Sevens Series title – a monumental achievement at the time as it was the first year the series had not been won by New Zealand.
Coaching became his calling and in 2010, he relocated to Seattle, on the north western coast of the United States, where he established his Serevi Rugby coaching brand, introducing the game to American youngsters.
“The main goal was to try to give back to rugby,” he adds.
“I’d played 21 years of international rugby and wanted to give back to rugby and that’s why we set up Serevi Rugby. We are trying to grow the game, to get kids into rugby, while having fun at the same time.
“When I was young I didn’t have the opportunity of top rugby players coming down to help me. I found my own way to go to the top, so I want to do that for children. We started off slowly, crawling, but now we are up and running and it’s spreading like wildfire.”
Ahead of the Emirates Airways Dubai Rugby Sevens this weekend, Serevi has been in the UAE coaching Emirati schoolboys competing at this weekend’s tournament.
Serevi only stands 5’ 7” tall but worked hard to improve his physique and says that the size and skills of the Emiratis makes sevens rugby the perfect sport for them to play.
“If you’re of any shape or size you have a position in rugby and I’ve been really encouraged with what I’ve seen in my time in the UAE,” he said.
“There are more than 3,000 Emiratis playing now, in 20+ schools. 10 or 15 years ago there were was a minimal amount playing, so I think the future is really bright for the UAE. In five to 10 years time there’ll be a lot of rugby players for the UAE to choose from.
“From what I see, they have a bright future, especially at sevens. Sevens is a good tool, a good game for them to learn, because there’s not a lot of contact, not a lot of complication, it’s about space and using it, so it’s good because of the size and skills of the Emiratis. Sevens is also going to be a new Olympic sport in 2016 too, so it’s an ideal opportunity.
"I said to the kids, when I was their age, I was a thin, little guy, but I trained hard and made big people look funny on the field. Their aim must be to believe in themselves.
“I can assure you you’ll face difficulties but it’s just a test for bigger things ahead of you. I went through similar situation. There was not a lot of support in Fiji, but I kept moving and working hard and, eventually, I made it into rugby big time.”
Fiji are renowned for their sevens rugby prowess, winning their first Dubai Sevens crown last year, but they have struggled to assert themselves as a superpower in the main area of 15-a-side rugby.
“I think it’s because the structural game for us is a little bit difficult. We don’t have the forwards. They don’t have the skills needed to get the backs the quality ball. I can assure you that if we had the New Zealand or South Africa forwards, it would be a different story.
“I’m not blaming the Fijian forwards. It’s the way we are trained. Maybe it’s right, maybe it’s wrong, but now they are rising to the occasion. They are playing abroad, learning a lot of things from France, England, Wales, lots of other nations, which is really good for us.
“We did well in the 2003 and 2007 Rugby World Cups, but not so good in 2011. It’s up and down. We nearly beat Wales (a 17-13 loss) in the last Test, when we were down to 14 men. It shows we are getting there and they are learning a lot of things.”
He believes Fiji have the capabilities to join that elite level.
“I believe that the national team, in the next couple of years, could be there competing against the biggest teams in world rugby. I believe we can be up there among the tier one nations, but then again, it depends on which teams you play every year.
“The big teams, like New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, every year they play amongst themselves. We’ve been left out.
“I would love to see us join the Rugby Championship. We would love a taste of playing these teams often so we can gauge where we are as an international team.
“When we play the big teams, a lot of people expect us to lose because we don’t play them regularly. We always play them in World Cup years but given what we’ve already given to Australia and New Zealand, I hope they turn around and send teams to play us.”