Waisale Serevi: The Fijian magician

Waisale Serevi talks to The Fiji Times at the Grand Pacific Hotel in this file picture. Picture: JONA KONATACI

DUBLIN, 22 MAY 2020 (WORLD RUGBY) – Widely regarded as the best player to have graced a rugby sevens field, there is little that the twinkle-toed playmaker hasn’t achieved in the shortened format of the game.

Able to produce jaw-dropping moments with a swivel of his hips, an untouchable side-step or a wonderfully weighted pass, Serevi was the heartbeat of the Fijian team, scoring 1,310 points on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series and a record 297 points in Rugby World Cup Sevens tournaments.

Twice a Rugby World Cup Sevens winner, in 1997 and 2005, he was also player-coach when Fiji won their first series title in 2005/06.

Serevi also played 15s professionally and appeared in three Rugby World Cups in an international career that spanned 18 years. In 2013, Serevi was inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame.

Like many professional players, Serevi found replacing the emotional highs associated with his playing days difficult when he called it a day in his late 30s.

In a revealing feature-length World Rugby documentary, Waisale Serevi: The Fijian magician, Serevi and his family talk candidly about that challenging period when drink and depression took hold.

But for the most part, Serevi’s tale is a joyous one of how he rose from humble beginnings to become the most revered sevens player on the planet.

Serevi reveals how his trademark sidestep was born from avoiding the potholes in the field they played rugby on in his youth.

Always one of the shortest of his peer group, Serevi had to bide his time, despite his obvious talent, before making his mark competitively.

After two years of handing out the shirts and socks as his local club’s unofficial kit man, Serevi eventually got his chance to shine and never looked back.

His first big break came in 1989 when he was selected to play for Fiji Sevens at the Hong Kong Sevens, a tournament that had a special place in his heart as a five-time winner.

The sky’s the limit

“I was so excited to get on the Cathay Pacific (plane) because I’d only ever seen it on VHS. As we landed, I was so excited to play at the tournament. I knew it was an opportunity for me to showcase my talent,” he says in the documentary.

“We played the final against New Zealand and we lost, and that motivated me to want to come back a better player and win the next year, which we did.”

Both of Serevi’s Rugby World Cup Sevens victories also came in Hong Kong.

“After we lost the 1993 Rugby World Cup Sevens, I thought ‘okay, I need to keep playing, keep working hard and try and win the next World Cup’. I heard straight after that it would be in Hong Kong, and there is no better place than to win the World Cup than to win it in Hong Kong.”

Fiji made it through to the final against a star-studded South Africa team, including the likes of Bobby Skinstad, and won 24-21 in what is considered to be one of the best men’s sevens matches of all time.

While small in stature, Serevi’s strong leadership – before and during the match – meant Fiji refused to buckle.

“When we were coming out to do the warm-up, the liaison officer told me, there is a problem, South Africa are warming up where we always warm-up, near the scoreboard, and the organisers want you to go on the other side. I said, ‘no, we are not going’, we are warming up together on the same time. I knew that it was a psychological battle,” he explains.

“It was an exciting warm-up for both teams because we were amongst each other, they were running across us and we were running across them, and while we were doing that, before we went into the tunnel, I saw the Fijian fans. They were holding up different boards and I told the boys to stop and look up. I said, ‘did you see the sign? It says, Take it home, Fiji’. I told the boys, that is our sign for today. We need to take this Cup back home.”

Fiji conceded two early tries to trail 14-0 but while under the posts for the second time, Serevi told his players to keep calm and to strike back before half-time.

Marika Vunibaka obliged with the first of four tries as Fiji reeled off 24 unanswered points to secure the Melrose Cup.

“Winning was an honour and a privilege for me, and it was one of the best games I have ever played in sevens rugby.”

Vision of victory

Serevi’s display in Hong Kong led to Serevi playing for a World XV, coached by Bob Dwyer, who then signed him for English club giants Leicester Tigers.

With Fiji only selecting home-based players for their sevens side, Serevi’s time abroad led to a four-year international exile.

But he returned in time to feature, and star, at Rugby World Cup Sevens 2005, which was once again held in his favourite destination.

Serevi says their second success there was literally a dream come true.

“Every time I go on the plane and it leaves, I always pray, ‘God, please protect the plane’, and when it lands, I do the same thing. When we arrived in Hong Kong in 2005, as I prayed and thanked god, before I opened my eyes, I saw a vision, I saw my son, on my shoulder, lifting the Melrose Cup. I thought this has to happen, but it will only happen if Junior comes to Hong Kong.”

Serevi summoned his family to travel to Hong Kong without delay and they watched on as he turned on the style and Fiji overcame New Zealand 29-19.

“When we won, I ran across and picked up my son and took him to the cup. It was an honour to win the World Cup again with my son out there, receiving it and representing all the kids in Fiji. It was an amazing final especially as we were not expected to win,” he says.

“A lot of people under-estimated us, thinking that there are a lot of older players so, to come back and show the world how sevens is done, I was so happy and proud.”

Serevi’s first experience as coach, albeit still in a playing capacity, saw them claim their first world series title with him in charge.

In April 2009, however, the downward spiral began when he resigned as head coach because of differences over selection policy.

After an ill-fated attempt at coaching Papua New Guinea, it was a trip to Vancouver to play for a Fijian invitational team that proved life-changing for Serevi.

This led to an opportunity to coach in the United States, in Seattle, where with the help of local businessman, he set up Serevi Nation, a company whose purpose is to spread the gospel of rugby in colleges and schools.

While a spell as coach of the Russia men’s national sevens team has come to an end, Serevi continues to work his magic at grassroots level.

Serevi is just pleased to be giving something back to the game that he says he owes his life to.

“Without rugby, there would be no Waisale Serevi, it is a sport that has core values of respect and camaraderie and all the things that make you a better person.”

Serevi is all the better for rugby, and rugby is all the better for Serevi.

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