Simon Raiwalui, coach for Racing Métro - "Discovering Fiji’s Rugbymen in France"

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Simon Raiwali, just before his first match as manager. Racing-Métro 92 vs Aviron Bayonnais, at the Yves-du-Manoir Stadium in Colombes. Victory for Racing 22-21 thanks to a try by Sireli Bobo.
(Photo: Marjolaine Martin)

Born Simon Vereniki Raiwalui on 8th September 1974 in Auckland, New Zealand; he was educated in Australia and in 1997, headed for the northern hemisphere where he signed a contract with the renown Saracens club in England. He played with Saracens for ten years. In 2007, he joined Racing Métro 92, in France, where he played till the end of his professional career, at the end of the 2010 – 2011 season. Measuring over 6 feet with 130 pounds; Raiwalui, a formidable adversary, recorded 43 caps for Fiji’s national team – including a World Cup and 3 with the Pacific Islanders. Now a retired, Simon Raiwalui continues to play a very active role in the rugby world, as he now trains young players at the Racing Métro 92 Training Centre.

The following interview with Simon Raiwalui has been adapted for the Embassy of France in Suva sports section “Discovering Fiji’s Rugbymen in France”.

Read on for this exclusive interview!

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Q: Where and when did you start playing rugby?

A: At the age of 5. We play rugby everyday in Fiji and in the Pacific. My family lived in New Zealand so I started playing when I started school over there.

Q: When did you decide you wanted to become a professional player?

A: When I started playing rugby in school, professional rugby didn’t exist. It started in 1995 and I finished school in ‘96. I have played rugby all my life. Not for the money but for the spirit of the game. Everyone played rugby. When rugby became a professional sport, it was an added bonus to get paid for it.

Q : Then you left for Europe and your international career began? First in England…

A : Yes. I arrived in 1997. Before that, I played in Fiji. An opportunity came up that allowed me to move overseas to play rugby, and take my wife and our first child with me, so I grabbed it.

Q : So your family followed you to England?

A : Yes. It was a good choice because it’s a good country. And it helped financially as well. It was a great opportunity for me. Normally a professional rugby player only plays at that level for a few years. I have played professionally for 14 years!

Q : Since you arrived in Europe, how have you kept in touch with Fiji?

A : Normally, I would have had to play the whole season with my team in England, but when the Fiji team played an international match, I was allowed to go play for Fiji. For 9 years I played all matches with the Fiji team. During the holidays, there was a block of four test matches. It’s very hard for any club to release their players during the season, but we did it.

Q: You have family in the Pacific…How do you stay in touch with them?

A : My mother and my sister live in Australia. We talk a lot on Skype. When I am not playing during the holidays, I try to go home for Summer. I didn’t go last Summer so it’s been a while now, its difficult, its long.

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Simon Raiwalui during a team training session in Antony, March 2012
(Photo: Marjolaine Martin)

Q : Can you tell me about your relationship with the other Fiji rugbymen?

A : I am their father (laughs). When they have a problem, they call me. If they need a new contract, for example. They call me for everything. I live next door to Sireli Bobo…he also helps the Fijians a lot. And not only the Fijians, but also the Tongans, the Samoans etc. We may be from different countries but we share the same culture: a close-knit community, surrounded by family…it’s the same for the French Polynesians, we have Mikaele Tuugahala. He also lives nearby. My neighbours are Mika, Sireli Bobo and Johnny Leo’o. I am in touch with many of the Fijians. If ever they have a problem, they call me.

Q : What type of problems?

A : Not big problems. Like, for example, if they need a place to sleep. All players who want to return to Fiji pass through Paris, and everyone arrives at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. Many come to spend short breaks in Paris. This is not a problem.
For young players, arriving in France is sometimes difficult because the culture is completely different. In Fiji, it’s quieter, we take our time…

Q: It’s very different?

A: Yes, it’s completely different. The food, of course. And there are many other cultural differences. The phone, for example. When players use their mobile phones here for the first time, they do not know that calling Fiji is very expensive. I tell them that they must manage their money wisely, they must save... It’s all these little things, because here it’s completely different. There is a lot more responsibility with professional rugby...they must change their mindset.

Q: You grew up in Australia and New Zealand. Do you think it was easier for you to adapt in France, than for young people who arrive directly from Fiji?

A: Oh yes! There are many differences. I went to school in Australia. The language is different but the system is the same as in France, with a family that works etc. For me it was not difficult. It’s very interesting, because I keep the two cultures. For Pierre (Berbizier, the coach) also, it’s interesting. When he has a problem with a player who does not understand something because it’s written in French, he calls me. These kinds of little things. When a player turns pro, many things change for him and it takes time to adjust. There are many young players here: Josh Matavesi, Virimi Vakatawa. When we arrive, we all have the same problems, such as weather, which is completely different here (in France). Also, all the players live near the sea. So at first it’s difficult for them, because they look outside and they miss seeing it. But after the first season things get better.

Q : What languages are used at the Club?

A : With the Fijians, usually it’s English. To talk about rugby, there is no problem with French, because it makes sense to everyone. For me, French is not easy. I didn’t learn it in school, so with the French players it’s not so simple. With Racing it’s a little different, because it’s a new team with a lot of foreign players. Pierre (Berbizier, the coach) speaks English, Italian, French… Many players speak English, so we mostly use English. Now that I have started working as part of the staff this season and having to talk rugby a lot more, my French has really improved.

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The cosmopolitan Racing Métro team in training earlier this year: Fijian Sireli Bobo, Argentinian Juan Imhoff and Italien Mirco Bergamasco.
(Photo: Marjolaine Martin)

Q : What is your job now with the club?

A : The Training Centre for young people...I am a rugby coach at the training centre. Dealing with young players is very similar to dealing with the Pacific Island players because many of the problems are the same: the mentality, the professionalism…

Q : More generally, what is the importance of rugby in a country like Fiji?

A : In Fiji, rugby is not a sport, it’s a culture. We play it all the time, from the age of five onwards. So its not just a sport, it’s very much a part of our culture.

Q : Does it carry any particular economic weight?

A : For the players, yes, because they get the chance to go to a richer country. But in the country? No, because there is not much money. They have a good 15s rugby team, but it’s the 7s team that is the most important. Fiji has one of the best 7s teams in the world and this increases their chances of getting sponsors and earning money.

Q : Do Fijian rugbymen who have played in Europe return to Fiji once their professional careers are over?

A : Normally yes, for the majority. Some stay. Josh’s (Matavesi) father played in England, he married an English woman and stayed. Josh was born in England. More and more players stay… but most return to Fiji because it’s hard to stay abroad after their career is over. I stayed after finishing my playing career, because I have built many relationships here, especially in the club, which gave me the chance to stay and work here in France. I didn’t maintain contacts in Australia or Fiji. Maybe later when I retire, I might return. But for now I prefer to stay here for the experience.

Q: Can you tell us about the other Fiji rugbymen in Racing Métro?

A : Sireli Bobo is a great player. He is 35. He had no problems when he arrived here and that was 7 years ago. He has been a very good friend to me.

Jone Qovu arrived with Pierre (Berbizier, the coach), in 2007. At first he was very quiet. He is 6 foot and weighs 135kg but he is very shy. The first couple of seasons, when the French players would speak to him, he would clam up, he was so very shy. But now, he has changed. He is more comfortable, confident, he jokes with the other players, he speaks a little French. He has really settled in.

Albert Vulivuli is not very old, he is 26. Before he played for Bourgoin. He just had a baby. He speaks excellent English, he speaks French too. Sometimes the French think that players in the Pacific are not hard workers, but Albert is not like that, he works hard. He is very professional!

Virimi Vakatawa has not yet been here for two years. He is 19. When he arrived, he was very thin…he was 87kg, very slender, very young, around 17 or 18 years old but with a lot of potential. When he first arrived, he played in a 7s tournament. He played the whole tournament and in the finals he broke his leg. That was tough. He’s young, but in his mind, in his spirit, he is a professional. When asked to work, he works. He has put on a lot of weight, muscles, now he’s very solid. At 19 years old, he is the youngest player on the team. If he sometimes has a little difficulty in understanding something, Peter calls me to explain it to him. He has a very good shot at playing at the highest level, because he is very talented.

Josh Matavesi arrived here last season as a replacement for Benjamin Fall who had injured his knee. Josh is a little different because his family is Fijian, but he is also English…he was born and raised over there. When he arrived here, Pierre thought he was a Fijian, but really he’s a “rosbif”* (laughs). *(“Roast beef” French slang for an Englishman) Peter asked me if I knew any good backs and I thought of Josh. He is a player with a lot of talent, it comes naturally to him, he’s a good tackler, and he’s good with the ball. He’s also very young…21. When he first arrived, he stayed with me. For him, the adjustment was not difficult because, although the language is different, England and France are relatively similar.

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Pacific rugbymen training: Johnny Leo’o and Benjamin Sa, Samoan New Zealanders, Josh Matavesi, Anglo-Fijian, and Sireli Bobo, Fijian.
(Photo : Marjolaine Martin)

Q: What about the other players who are not Fijians? The New Zealanders of Samoan origin, like Johnny Leo’o, Benjamin Sa?

A: For them, it’s a bit like it is for me. They still have family in the Pacific; they went to school in New Zealand. They have that competitive mentality. They started playing rugby around five years old, went to school with the discipline, with the rugby spirit.

Q: And what about Wallis Islander, Mikaele Tuugahala?

A: He is very easy to talk to; very kind….he’s a great friend. He lives nearby. Our children are growing up together. I have three children, two boys and a girl. My first is 14 years old, so is his and they are best friends. We have a lot of barbecues together, when it’s the right season. All the children get together - they eat, they drink. In the Pacific, in Australia, this is very important, the group, the family. They are all good friends for my son. Mika is very nice. The first time you see him, you think he is a tough guy. With his tattoos, he is very imposing! But he’s not like that; he’s a really good guy.

Q: You mentioned tattoos. Do you have any tattoos?

A: Yes, on one arm. I really like it. I started with a small one and then it progressed slowly…I got another, and another, and another! Then my wife said “Stop it!” (laughs) I wrote the names of my children. In the Pacific, tattoos are part of our culture. The French have tattoos too…

Q : Yes, especially the rugbymen!

A : Yes! They have tattoos from the Pacific! For me, the tattoos have no particular meaning. They’re personal. When people see me, they think to themselves that I must be from the Pacific, and when they see my tattoos, they know for sure (laughs).

For more information:

- Simon Raiwalui: http://www.racing-metro92.com/Simon_RAIWALUI-54-30.html
- Racing Métro 92 website: http://www.racing-metro92.com
- Top 14 Results: http://www.lequipe.fr/Rugby/top-14-classement.html

Published on 12/06/2012

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