The Rugby Player from Fiji Who Conquered the World | Against All Odds

January 27, 2020

My name is Jerry Tuwai Vunisa,
and I’ve played rugby almost all my life. Rugby is like
an excellence sport for us. Jerry lives in a settlement, in Suva,
one of the poorest neighbourhoods. The police will tell you it’s one
of the most dangerous neighbourhoods. We’ve got no electricity,
we’ve got no water, we’ve got no fridge,
no TV, no nothing. When I’m down, I think of them.
I think of my mother and my father. I think of them
working, struggling… That is something that keeps me going,
gives me something that I can fight for. This is the first time ever for Fiji sending his rugby sevens team
to the Olympics. For Fiji, we haven’t won any gold medal,
ever, in any Olympic Games. For us,
to win the gold medal
would be something
we’d be proud of the rest of our lifes. FIJI IS AN ARCHIPIELAGO OF MORE THAN 330 ISLANDS
IN THE SOUTH PACIFIC OCEAN For us, almost all Fijians
play rugby, it’s like our national sport. Rugby Sevens
it’s like a heartbeat of Fiji everytime we witness
a Rugby Sevens tournament, the nation will stop. Everyone knows how the country feels
when the team does well; when it celebrates succes,
we celebrate as a nation. This is where we started,
the roundabout. It’s where we play,
where we grow up Now this roundabout is sealed,
but before it was of gravel. I lost lots of toe nails
because of playing there. But it didn’t stop me from playing. We played with a bottle,
with a T-Shirt; we played with it. Where Jerry lives,
and in all the other areas in Fiji where there’s low levels of income
and there’s poverty, it’s a tough neighbourhood to grow up in,
and there’s lots of petty crime there. I’ve done things that are not good,
some things are bad, some things are against the law. Some things that will take us to jail,
take us to somewhere not good. So I learnt from that
and I’ve tried to make myself better by playing the Rugby Sevens. I played rugby here, in school,
we started that. I was the captain, here.
We won all tournaments. And that is the foundation of me
playing rugby. The life here is struggle. We have to work hard
so we can put something on the table, for each family, for each parent it’s like that. That cane knife
is what keeping my farm alive, it helped me contain it
and helped me to feed my family. From that cane knife alone and my hands,
the driving force is from the heart. This is my property, this one here. Jerry helping me for planting cassava
and his brother here helping me now. See? This is the cassava.
We eat. I told him that what I have done, all the money I have earned
is for other things in our life, food and clothes,
but for treasury I can’t afford, for fridge I can’t afford.
It’s not enough. When I was like 14, 15,
I dived with my father, me and my brother. I go with him, hold the fish,
I sell the fish in the streets. It’s a really hard job. For me, I prefer Jerry
to continue play rugby because I do not want him to be doing
what I’m doing which is diving or farming. It is better for him
to find something else to do because these two work
takes a lot out of us and it is tiring for me. My father is someone
that always told me to be humble. My mom she’s a motivation for me. Even when you’re down or even when I dropped school. It was a mistake for me
to leave school. At afternoon, he came home and said
“nana, I want to be a rugby player.” I said “whatever you think, I’ll support you,
I’ll be there for you.” From the small budget
that she had for our family to survive, she took all that money to buy our food
and she buy me one rugby boots. And she told me
“this is your knife and fork, this is what you will do
to achieve something better”. So, from there, I take my rugby boots,
I write on the bottom “knife and fork”. JERRY JOINED NEWTOWN
RUGBY CLUB AT AGE 18 When Jerry started playing, he was outstanding
amongst his teammates in Newtown. He used to play in the wing
and speed and side steps, steps that were different
from the other players. The first time
when I saw him playing, he has the potential
to become a great player. He really catches all eyes. He saw me playing in Suva
with our little rugby club against their team, Marist. So, after that,
he came to me and he told me that can I come and play Sevens
with their team. So, I agreed. He was like an expert. While playing,
he makes a very brilliant watch, especially with his footwork,
the size of footstep. We’ve been pushing Jerry’s name
if they could ever have a look at him. Some of the other coaches, from their point of view,
they said that Jerry was too small. To be the smallest in the team
it comes with a lot of work for me to achieve what other big boys
are doing. So, I cannot go
straight to the defense line. I cannot run straight to you,
cause you’re big. Defense-wise, big boys
they are easy for them to put down the
players, other players they’re tackling.
For me, it’s double work. It took him almost two years
to court the attention of Ben Ryan. And here’s one player
that has been mentioned by Ben Ryan and he was the Marist half-back. And he’s the man
that is gonna feed him now. He’s under the scope of Ben Ryan. I could see that
he had this amazing footwork. His steps were fantastic. He never lost pace when he stepped.
But he drifted in and out of the games. He enjoyed the stepping,
but he didn’t enjoy too much else. But I could see potential,
so we thought bringing him into camp. Jerry was raw and he didn’t have
that training intensity behind him. He would give up very easily. Before, I cannot train really hard. When the training got harder,
I can step somewhere, use a lot of excuses. There’s a bush
at the end of the field. So, you run to one end,
100 metres, you sprint back, it’s 200 metre returns,
and then you wait 30 seconds and repeat. The first one happened
and Jerry finished it. And I just saw a movement
in the bush. And I wasn’t sure what had happened.
And Jerry wasn’t on the line. And he had jumped in the bush to hide
from doing any more of the running. So, we grabbed him out of the bush
and threw him back on the field and he carried on running. Before, when I trained,
when I’m tired, I put my head down like this,
standing like this. But he changed that. Every time he saw me
going down like this, he would call my name
“Jerry, put your head up!” So… “Jerry!” It’s like that. We slowly had to…
break is a harsh word, but we had to break him mentally
to get him to that next level of toughness, because we could see his potential, but it’s no good
if you can’t have the fitness to perform or you’re only good
for a few seconds. You need to be
an all-round player. I remember
when he first came in the team, he was really quiet,
wasn’t talking a lot. And Ben said “Jerry, if you want to be
in the team, you have to talk a lot”. I don’t talk too much. Before, even in training,
I was quiet, really quiet. So, Ben tell me
“if you want to get in the team, you should be talking”. Because the position I am playing,
I’m the one who’s directing the defense, telling them to go right or left, go up,
come back or leave the ball. So, Ben tell me for me to talk. He changed my mentality
to be stronger. I’m sure he would have had the opportunity
later on in the season, but it came at the right time
and he really did light that tournament up and had an outstanding debut,
one of the best debuts I’ve seen. I use my feet, I step around you,
so you cannot catch me. That’s my weapon, to step. He takes out nearly two defenders
when he steps, and he creates space
for other people in the field. He can do anything,
a side step or goose step or kick the ball or…
He does impossible things. Last year, I won the Rookie of the Year
because of my performance. And, this year, I won in Dubai
the Best Player of the Final. Dubai Sevens. To win something
to be given to you individually for me I believe
that is not yours alone. It’s for the teams. Because you cannot achieve that
when you’re playing alone. My biggest memory of Jerry
was on the sideline of Hong Kong, where he had played so well
in one of the finals and we took him off
with a couple of minutes to go. We won Hong Kong
and he just grabs me and embraces me. And you could see
that genuine smile on someone’s face, where it’s just pure
and there is a connection between the coach and the player, and that was our moment, you know…
So, it’s far better than any words. He gives me another standard to be the rugby player I am today,
from that kid, from that local rugby player
playing in the roundabout, to be an international rugby player. Ben Ryan moulded me to that. To be part of the national team
is really a massive honour for you, for your family and your relatives,
and it’s a big thing. Being in the Sevens team,
being part of that is a religion
and it’s passionate for everybody. For me, it’s a bless
to play for the Fiji national team. Whenever Fiji plays,
especially in the Sevens, I think the whole of Fiji
comes to a halt. Bank holidays have been created
because of the national team’s success. This sport, Sevens, Rugby Sevens,
is one thing that unite us. Fiji rugby doesn’t have a lot,
it doesn’t have a lot of money. The budget we have
is not the same as the one Australia has, America, New Zealand,
big countries like England. They have millions, you know,
they put into the Sevens programme. At Fiji, we live on a shoestring. People are always surprised
when they come to see our training base. You know, it’s in a beautiful place,
but it’s basic, and everything in Fiji in that respect
is simple and under-resourced. We have land to be out and play,
we have eight, we have some balls to use, and we also have players that are prepared
to just play for the love of the game and to get better and not worry
about their facilities. No one moans. The boys wash their kit most of the times
and they wash basins after the training. They make up their own water bottles,
they do things themselves. They’re self-sufficient. What we have
is something more than millions, something more
than what other teams don’t have is that we have our faith in the Lord
and that has kept us going. And I think that is the source
of our strength in the Fiji Sevens team, it’s our belief
in the Lord Jesus Christ. Before we do something
in the morning, we pray. We pray together as a team,
we call it Lotu. Then, after 10 in the afternoon,
we do it again. They will even have armbands
on their wrists or on their heads, just to write a short Bible verse. Training it’s only a first step. Jesus Christ is the next step.
He will do the rest. I’ve been here 3 years and we’ve been very lucky
with hitting just the tails of cyclons, and when the season comes,
we’ll get a few. But when Winston came,
it was a different story. Complete and utter devastation. Just one of several villages
on the island of Koro. Here, 163 people crawled to safety after strong winds and rain
AND 62.000 HOMELESS Cyclone Winston destroys a lot of homes
around the country, including some of the homes
of our players. Following the cyclone, there was a tournament
which was held in Las Vegas. We use the cyclone
to actually encourage our Sevens team. They took it as a way
to motivate them in the field. Out of all the devastation
that cyclone Winston have caused to Fiji, with the houses down,
this team want to watch Sevens Rugby. We still have the television on,
even outside. So we said, Las Vegas Sevens,
we will win it for the country. And they took it personally. The players themselves they personalized
those things to play and go into the field. And actually, when they make their tackle
or they catch the ball to pass the ball, whatever they were doing, they were picturing what the Fijian people
went through on those hard times. TWO WEEKS BEFORE THE OLYMPICS,
THE PRIME MINISTER ANNOUNCES THE TEAM It’s the first time ever for Fiji to send in
the Rugby Sevens team to the Olympics. Ben Ryan
has been having headaches in trying to select
who’s the best possible player. There’s only twelve spots. When the Prime Minister
is going to announce the team, then you’ll know,
and this is one of the biggest things ever. It can be bigger than anything
that’s happening right now in Fiji. You must have seen it,
I was so thankful to God. I bowed down and prayed. Getting closer to Rio now,
I’ve started to feel… I discussed with my parents
and discussed to my partner is that it’s pressure it’s coming
and I know how huge it is. It’s a big task. For Fiji, we haven’t won
any gold medal ever, in any Olympic Games. I know we have a big chance
of winning Fiji’s first medal in the Olympics. I’ve been making plans
for all this community. What we should wear
during the Rio game, what we will do. Everything is already planned
for this community, because this community supports Jerry. We watch game in the roundabout. That will be something, my friend.
Something. I told them coming to Rio
“losing is not an option for us.” “We’re coming for the gold
and we will get the gold.” Here they come. And they are the Fijian players
who march on. This is the match which will go a long way
to deciding who finished top of the pool. Sprinting for the corner.
What a run! And the sweeper
did his job magnificently. Against Argentina,
I tackled Alex Muller. He was running
and I was the last man to defend. I gave it my all. I tackled him outside.
Game over, we won. FIJI QUALIFIED
BRASIL, USA AND ARGENTINA Every time he gets the ball,
I’m like a spectator, I’m thinking “go on, get that right step at,
and take these guys on.” Because I knew from our game
from the start he was as fast as ever. He ran 37 km/h
in one of the games. The second try against New Zealand,
just smashed it. Stepped and gone. He has got amazing footwork
and, for a little fellow, he’s incredibly brave. Here’s Jerry Tuwai,
the smallest man in this Fiji side, bursting his way through
with the offload. And it’s another score. AFTER KNOKING OUT JAPAN
and we are going to the final. I cannot express
how I feel right now. If one scores, that’s for the team
and it’s for the country. A gold medal at stake. Will it be Fiji
or will it be Great Britain? It’s one of those hair-standing-up
-on-the-back-of-the-neck moments. And this is Fiji
at their rampant best. You stay in the present,
you work your plan, you keep things simple.
It seemed to work. It’s a million smiles from Fiji. Fiji are the Olympic champions. My favourite bit probably,
I’ve said it to a couple of people, walking off and shaking everyone’s hands
and I’m just whispering in their ears and saying “You’re an Olympic champion,
Jerry, you know?” I’m an Olympic champion. This is not just
a historic moment for Fiji. This is the first time
an Olympic gold medal has ever been awarded
to a small Pacific island nation. I just cried. I cried the whole time
that Fiji was playing. I was so happy and excited
at the same time. And I look around
and I see my family all around me. I stood up
and started hugging everyone. I was just crying standing at the podium
with the gold medal. And I know all the people back home
they’re really happy with us and they’re waiting for us
to come back to Fiji. It is an Olympic
and it is a gold in the Olympic, not in the common world.
It is more than that. Olympic is a… I think Fiji will have like a week or two
or even a month holiday. He’s representing
what he’s been going through in life in terms of fighting in the field, fighting for his family,
fighting for his friends, fighting for indifference.
Jerry, I think, for him he wants a change. He wants the reputation of Newtown
to be changed completely. People will say “you are a lucky mom,
you are a proud mom.” I’ll just say “thank you”,
but, in my heart, I know I am. To your parents and your mother,
it’s never enough for you to give them. It’s never enough. Life can be simple and beautiful. You don’t need the latest gadgets,
you don’t need the best clothes or the best restaurants. You don’t need all those things
to be ultimately, genuinely happy. And I think Jerry
and the rest of the players have taught me what’s really an invaluable lesson. That medal is for my parents. Jerry Tuwai is from Newtown,
so that win is for the community. It’s for Fiji, my friend, it’s for Fiji.

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