Rugby: Gold that belongs to all of Fiji safe with dad

Jerry Tuwai (right) during Daveta's 12-29 defeat by Sunnybank of Australia in their final pool match of the SCC 7s at the Padang yesterday. The Fijian side went on to lose 5-7 to England Academy in the quarter-finals.
Jerry Tuwai (right) during Daveta's 12-29 defeat by Sunnybank of Australia in their final pool match of the SCC 7s at the Padang yesterday. The Fijian side went on to lose 5-7 to England Academy in the quarter-finals.PHOTO: SCC 7S

The people of Fiji wanted to get their hands on the Olympic gold medal so much that some would pay for it. But rugby sevens player Jerry Tuwai told all interested buyers that it is not for sale at any price.

Half-back Tuwai, who scored Fiji's second try against Britain in the final in Rio, had an enticing offer for his coveted medal following their triumphant return with the country's first Olympic medal.

A family friend made an opening bid of US$30,000 (S$41,530) for that medal, so that he could frame it up and display in a shop.

But while the money would have been a big relief for the 27-year-old, who comes from Newtown, a poor village settlement near Fiji's capital Suva, he turned down the offer.

He gave the gold medal to his father, Poasa Vunisa, 55, for safekeeping, and as a gesture of thanks.

Tuwai, the eldest of five children, said: "I gave it to my dad because he's the one who struggled a lot and sacrificed for me when I grew up."

BEARING THE BURDEN

Now the expectation on Fiji rugby is so high... They can sack the coach or the players if we don't deliver.

JERRY TUWAI, Fiji rugby sevens star, on heightened demands on the team and their new Welsh coach Gareth Baber.

Vunisa, who lives in a village where electricity is scarce, is a spearfishing diver and a farmer. He wanted to surprise his son by sending him off to Australia's Gold Coast for his debut in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series in 2014.

But after hitching a ride to the airport in Nadi, he had to sleep on the streets before borrowing money to make the trip home.

"A few people wanted to buy it (the gold medal), but I told them that the gold medal is priceless," said the 1.70m-tall Tuwai, the smallest member of the Fiji sevens Olympic team, yet known for his nifty side-stepping footwork.

The sport has changed Tuwai's life even before striking gold in Rio.

He grew up playing at a roundabout in his village, and either a coconut, a bottle or a rolled-up shirt was used in place of a rugby ball.

Said Tuwai, who dropped out of secondary school to pursue the sport: "Before this, I can be a person walking freely along the streets. Now I cannot even walk five steps."

Though he did not get mobbed in Singapore, where he is playing for Fijian club Daveta at the Singapore Cricket Club International Rugby Sevens (SCC 7s), people do recognise him and want wefies.

The group stage of the SCC 7s continued yesterday with the favourites suffering a shock exit.

The crack Fijian outfit were upset by England Academy 7-5 in the quarter-finals, ending their chances of claiming a record seventh Ablitt Cup. They will now take on the Iskandar Raiders from Johor in the Shield semi-finals at 1.20pm today at the Padang.

Still there is no taking away their fame back home. Daveta captain Emosi Mulevoro, who was part of the squad who won the World Rugby Sevens Series this year, added: "Winning gold in Rio was such a big thing. They needed 30 minutes to walk 50m."

While the fame and success have brought "things I didn't have before and I can get the things I want", Tuwai does not go for material riches.

He said: "Yes, there's lesser worry now, but things are still the same for me. I've been brought up in humble beginnings where I didn't have many things and I don't need many things to be happy."

Nothing unites the South Pacific nation of 333 islands like rugby. But it is with a mixture of fearfulness and uncertainty when they think about what's next for them.

Their coach Ben Ryan, who led them to back-to-back World Series titles and the Olympic crown, has left. Current Hong Kong coach Gareth Baber, a Welshman, is the Englishman's successor.

Tuwai said: "Now the expectation on Fiji rugby is so high. All the pressure is on the team and on him (Baber). They can sack the coach or the players if we don't deliver."

Daveta's Pio Mua added: "We don't know if we can keep up (the success). What's the future like? We don't know."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 06, 2016, with the headline 'Gold that belongs to all of Fiji safe with dad'. Print Edition | Subscribe