Niue’s claim to rugby fame

The fact that Niue Island (population 1,700 inhabitants) beat Japan (population 120 million) at rugby sevens, is in itself the kind of stuff rugby legends are made of and in a journalistic sense it is a headline worthy of any South Pacific back page. But who are the Niueans and what makes them tick? Jeremy Duxbury has been trying to find out.

The match in question happened in the Bowl quarterfinals at the IRB 7s in Brisbane in February when Niue beat Japan 31 19. And incredibly it didn’t end there. One week later in Wellington, teeny weeny Niue thumped superpower Japan for a second time, winning 25-0, then triumphed 20-17 over the mighty United States (population 240 million). Such results should ensure the Niueans get invited back next year and again and again Rugby crowds love underdogs who turn the tables on the favourites, and the world’s smallest rugby-playing nation does fit that image nicely.

The name Niue is derived from the local Polynesian word ‘niu’, meaning coconut tree. With a land area of 259 sq km, Niue is the largest coral island in the world, located some 450 km east of Tonga on the other side of the International Dateline, and just below American Samoa. Nicknamed ‘The Rock’, Niue has been independent since 1974, being fully responsible for internal affairs, with New Zealand retaining responsibility for external affairs.

There are 14 villages ages on the island and the majority of them have their own rugby team who practice on their village green. Most, though, play on the main ground NISANOC -the one and only stadium on the Island, belonging to the Niue Olympic Committee - in Alofi. According to Talagi there are only six clubs on the island, Alofi I (the champions), and Liku/Lakepa, Tuapa, Tamavaiava, Hakupu and Alofi II - as the capital is divided into two parts, North and South. About 20% of the population is actively involved in rugby with about 120 150 senior players and about 200 children playing the game, which puts Niue at the top of the world’s league. The equivalent number for England would be around 11 million rugby players which is about four times the world’s current playing population The Niue rugby season runs from March until May when the clubs play for the main domestic trophy the New Zealand High Commission Cup.

"When I started in 1999, there were four clubs on the island, so each played three games and then at the end of the season. I told them, if that’s I you’re doing then you’re wasting my time. Now we have got six team but that’s it. I don’t think we can form any more. There are a lot of physical aspects, especially between the top two teams, there’s a ways good rivalry" Rugby Union President Toke Talagi said.

Support is plentiful, with rugby towering over soccer and rugby league in popularity. Although there’s only one level of competition, the union is trying to establish a competition for youth.

"We have just one school for both primary and secondary levels, but we do have a big annual clash between the school leavers and the 1st School XV Another thing we are trying to do is to create our own administrative structure There’s myself, the vice president, secretary treasurer coaches for 15s and 7s, and two international liaisons," Talagi added.

Similar to Fiji and Samoa, but on a smaller scale, Niue followed owed the IRB’s example and organised their own domestic sevens series. They play four tournaments in July and August, structured the same way as the IRB Sevens The New Zealand connection - cultural, political and personal, is very strong and has had a strong impact on the country and the population.

Union President Talagi, who is also Niue’s Minister for Education and Finance, admits the free association with New Zealand has its advantages as well as its disadvantages "We lose a huge portion of our population to New Zealand, basically because they can just go there freely For New Zealand, let’s say 100 people is just a drop in the ocean, but for us it is 7% of our entire population In some respects it’s good for the people, e, but on the other hand it’s not good for the country because a lot of the people leave for greener pasture%" he explained.

"I went to New Zealand for secondary and tertiary education myself I did a cultural Science degree at Massey University and then I came back, Similarly head coach, Rick Tagelagi, a born and bred Niuean, did his tertiary education in New Zealand and before joining the NZ Navy. He played plenty of rugby in France and England when stationed in Europe, and even played against Niue when his warship was in port. His rugby CV includes helping set up Viadana as a professional club in Italy and managing the Counties Manukau Academy in New Zealand. Now, Tagelagi wants to give something back to his country and has been busy networking in New Zealand and Australia to find eligible players, of which there appear to be many hence the improved performance in the two IRB series tournaments.

Since last year’s Manchester Commonwealth Games where Niue became the crowd darlings every time they took to the field, serious progress has been made. When Niue competed in the 2001 Wellington 7s for the first time, the team was made up of local- based players, and though they scored tries against England and Canada, they were soundly beaten in most games.

Talagi remembers the night well. "The problem the boys had in Wellington was that they were awe struck in front of the 35,000 screaming fans. Simply unable to handle the size of the crowd it was too much of a shock for them. If you assembled the whole of our nation’s population in one place, they would only make up one small section of the crowd. And they also knew they were live on TV back home in Niue. So they dropped the ball so many times because they were nervous and a bit unfit," he said.

Two years on, and Niue have three Test matches under their belts, played in the qualifying rounds of RWC, as well as last year’s experience at the Commonwealth Games. Although they played at some of the earlier South Pacific Games (they lost 124 4 to Fiji in 1983), Niue’s first official Test was at home against the Cook Islands in a RWC qualifier two years ago Nerves and inexperience again got the better of them, and they went down 28 8 before regrouping a week later to defeat Tahiti 41-6 in Papeete.

"Against the Cooks, I felt the boys had lost the game before they even played. I didn’t want to talk to the team beforehand, but I really should have done so, or at least somebody should have helped them prepare mentally But we are new to this kind of thing and we have to learn as we move along They played pretty well but there was a piece missing. We lost the lineouts yet we continued to kick the ball into touch when we had penalties. They weren’t exactly thinking and nobody got in there and sorted it out In the Test against Tahiti, one of our players, William Mauaumata, was 42 and we’ve also had a 16 year old play Test rugby for us. I’m not sure if that is a record in world rugby?" Talagi said.

The match against Vanuatu, also in the RWC qualifying rounds, has had a devastating effect on the union’s finance as they had to spend the whole yearly budget for the return trip to Port Vila. To the uninitiated, a journey from Niue to Vanuatu, 1,900 km to the west, shouldn’t present much of a problem. But the Niue based players had to fly to Tonga, spend a night there, then fly to Auckland and where they had to spend three nights to catch the connecting flight to Vanuatu (known as the New Hebrides until independence in 1980) for the match. They had to repeat the exercise on their way back but if you ask any of the players, and for that matter administrators, whether that was money well spent, they would swear that for the Niueans who played that day against the more experienced Vanuatu in Port Vila,, it was worth every cent. Niue won 55-5!

"As for women’s rugby we have tried to form it once but they weren’t fit enough. They were keen and wanted to play 7s so l said: ‘Okay you get fit and then come back and we will organise a competition for you.’"

The story of Niue rugby since it joined the IRB in 1999 has been quite remarkable one small island in the Pacific where everyone plays the game with passion. Talagi believes Niue have become a stronger team mentally and exposure will help them to improve.

"I think the group of guys playing eying for Niue now are not as big as some of the players who used to play in my day but they are stronger mentally. A lot of people have been surprised by our results, but I knew we had the talent and skill to do well; it’s just that we’ve never won anything before. Now we are finally on the world’s big map."

(World of Rugby)