Fiji's Silktails sang from balconies for hotel – and for Australian rugby league

<span>Photograph: Costa Argyrous/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Costa Argyrous/Reuters

Before the Kaiviti Silktails rugby league team finished their Covid-19 quarantine they had become worldwide heroes. Individually singing from 35 Juliet balconies in the Sydney Sofitel Hotel, they serenaded the world with three gospel hymns, going viral with more than million hits and delivering a Fiji-style thank you to the staff and guards who had nursed them to the promised land.

Their joyous gratitude was a refreshing contrast with the complaints and social media moping of other quarantined athletes, and announced the arrival of something unique.

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“We sang both for the wonderful people at the hotel and also for Australia – the best place to pursue a rugby league career,” explains captain Penioni Tagituimua.

Still sweating after an intense captain’s run training at his team’s base at Daceyville in Sydney’s inner south, the rock-chiseled hooker added with a big smile: “You have invited us to play in your competition, which means a lot to the Fijian people, and we are grateful.”

Gratitude is the progeny of opportunity, and the opportunity for the 28 players in the Kaiviti Silktails is unlike any ever offered to a Fijian sports team. To base themselves in Australia for seven months and play in the semi-professional Ron Massey Cup is a dream come true with two goals: to acclimatise them to Australian rugby league culture and showcase their talent directly to NRL clubs.

The Silktails represent a broad mix of Fijian males in full bloom – soldiers, policemen, teachers, labourers, farmers, barmen, students and engineers, all bound together on a joint hero’s journey.

For NRL great and Silktails chairman Petero Civoniceva, seeing the emotional airport scenes and the players emerge from quarantine was overwhelming – the tip of the spear of a new phenomena. “This journey started in 2014, we have fought hard for this moment,” Civoniceva says. “It’s been a long time coming and we’ve had to overcome hurdles and doubts.”

Civoniceva was born in Brisbane to Fijian parents and feels the gap is now closing between Fiji-raised players and those in Australia. “This fight was for a level playing field for Fiji locals,” says the former Queensland, Kangaroos and Brisbane Broncos prop. “I got opportunities because I grew up here and this team evens it up. These boys have an unbelievable showcase in the city where nine of the NRL teams are based.

“The growth of rugby league in Fiji is now more now than kicking a football and running drills in a park. It’s about infrastructure, resources, identity and dignity for all our men, women, boys and girls. Something special is happening.”

The rugby league world had a seismic moment at 4.29pm, March 27, 2021, when the Silktails fulfilled their sacred destiny and ran onto McCredie Park in Guildford to face Western Suburbs powerhouse St Marys Saints.

This team of Pacific revolutionaries were greeted raucously by Fijian-Australian fans who had waited a year to see them after the 2020 season was cancelled.

The sacrifices of so many had finally borne fruit and the players flashed beaming smiles – the joyous cartographers of a new unmapped world. The St Marys players, however, were not in a sentimental mood, and the two forward packs tore into each other early in the game.

Team Liaison, Tas Baiteri, watched on, absorbed by the spectacle. For him the, real battle is won off field with the operationalisation of resilience. “We are trying to replicate a Fijian lifestyle in Sydney,” Baiteri says. “Church has a big role, lots of good food and emotional support.

“Our players have three babies being born next month, dads are missing birthdays, one player lost his parents at birth. Others are the elder brother providers who have to send all their money home. We have to factor in some very emotional moments that could trigger in their minds.”

For Baitieri, the pathway is overdue. “Playing structure and discipline are not as serious in Fiji and the Silktails will allow players to mature in the system, become hot properties and reinforce Fiji’s excellence at the top level,” he says. “They have made the semi-finals of the last three world Cups and are ready to go to the next level.”

Baiteri has been impressed with the way the Fijian community has taken in the team, with church visits to Granville and Liverpool followed by community feasts and singing. “They’ve been eating some good home-cooked Fijian food, and a few KFC buckets have gone the rounds as well.”

Baiteri winced as the Silktails finally broke after 10 minutes of crunching contact. St Marys uncovered a weakness and brutally exposed it, running in multiple tries for a 56-6 walkover of the Silktails, who faltered under the weight of their opponents’ structure, rust and the vertigo of the odyssey.

Despite the wake-up call, spirits were high at the end of the game and, for the first time in Ron Massey Cup history, both teams formed a circle. Arm in arm, they said a post-match prayer and song – a moment of cultural sharing, muscular humility and honour.

After the game, St Marys president, Warren Smith, said outside the Saints dressing room his players felt as if “they had been running into brick walls and hit by cement blocks”, adding: “this will be great for their learning.”

As a magnificent grey-orange sunset receded over McCredie Park, the Silktails went back into their changerooms for pizza and post-mortem to attempt to alleviate the embarrassment.

The solemn mood was soon overrun by Fijian positivity. The message from coach and another NRL great, Wes Naiqama, oozed the long game. “It’s a long journey, hang in there, this is what Australia is about – tough footy. Let’s get them in the return game.”

When rugby league’s founding fathers sat down in the George Hotel in Huddersfield in 1895 to create the game of rugby league, they would have been proud of their Fijian descendants.

From ancient seafarers to modern-day rugby league pilgrims, they are filling a country with hope through rugby league. Not all will make it but some will get the golden ticket of an NRL contract and drastically change their family’s fortunes.

The Silktails will take time to adjust to the structure of Australian rugby league and were exposed by a benchmark team. But for captain Tagituimua, it is all about building for the next generation, and realigning Fiji’s status from a talent hotbed to be plundered to standing alone as a cultural unit in the toughest leagues of all.

Physically exhausted after the match, he summons a whisper: “Buno, mosi, Tagi Rawa ike. Wai marau I muri.”

“Sweat now and enjoy later.”

Patrick Skene is the author of The Big O: The Life and Times of Olsen Filipaina - Pacific Revolution Pioneer, available in bookstores on online.