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The Minister for Youth and Sports and his Assistant Minister,
The Australian and New Zealand High Commissioners,
Chairman and Board Directors of FRU,
Representatives of Provincial Unions,
Invited Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen.

Good evening and bula vinaka to you all.

It’s a pleasure to be here tonight –– not only as your chief guest, but as the President of the Fiji Rugby Union –– to reflect on a year of remarkable success for rugby in Fiji, both on and off the field. It has indeed been a wonderful year, and we have many reasons to celebrate.

I’d like to focus first on FRU’s “off-the-field” achievements –– chief amongst those was our successful inclusion to the World Rugby Council after more than a century in the game.

That appointment to the World Rugby Council came after years of hard work, and I thank the FRU board for their foresight and drive in making this a top priority. After setting our sights on this goal and pursuing it with passion, this dream has become a reality in just three years. We achieved a great deal of progress as an organisation during this transformational period, making a number of vital changes in the way we conducted business, from introducing sound governance practices, amending the FRU constitution, and engaging a host of talented professionals to assist along the way.

One of those new additions has already made a big splash on the sport: Ms Mere Rakoroi was appointed as a female director, and she has proven to be instrumental in advocating for women’s rugby. Just last year, we introduced a new women’s competition –– initially in a ten-a-side format, this will be expanded to full XV code in 2019. Our Fiji Airways Fijiana team gained great experience and success in their Australian tour, and I have also been extremely proud to see the growth of women’s rugby provincially, with 24 provinces and about 800 players now participating in the women’s competition.

Ladies and gentlemen, this wide-spanning transformation has not been easy –– as with every bold change, comes stubborn opposition. We must commend FRU’s leadership for their foresight and fortitude. By looking ahead and not being deterred by detractors, they have facilitated a modernised structure and programme that has positioned us to move forward from an unprecedented position of strength.

FRU’s newfound representation at the World Rugby Council will provide us with great insight, and give Fiji a voice at this forum for the first time. Already, our CEO John O’Connor has been asked to join the Professional Games Committee of World Rugby. This is a milestone achievement that will help take Fijian rugby to the next level, and again, I thank the board and management for their diligence in crossing the goal line.

As part of our changes to the FRU constitution, we also brought the Deans and Kaji competitions under our wings, and will now be fully responsible for their conduct and oversight, as is the case with all other domestic competitions. The FRU will work closely with rugby affiliates at Fiji’s primary schools –– our Kaji –– and secondary schools –– our Deans –– to ensure that these competitions are played and governed by rules and regulations that are fair, transparent, and in full compliance with all the World Rugby requirements.

This is grassroots rugby at its finest, and if we are to compete consistently at the international level, it is critical that we get it right in these competitions. This can be a make-or-break phase for our young ruggers; it’s a turning point where, in the absence of a good support network, they may hang up their kits –– but with that network in place, they are positioned to thrive at higher levels. Our kids need to get the right coaching and guidance from properly-accredited staff –– from coaches, to strength and conditioning experts, to medics –– and I urge FRU to work closely with the two affiliates to make this happen. We need to get this right.

Last year, Vodafone took over the sponsorship of the Kaji competition for the first time ever. Thanks to their support, FRU was able to provide financial support to each of the 36 districts, helping them to organise their districts’ tournaments without being burdened by cost. Through this sponsorship, FRU provided similar financial support to Fiji’s divisional competitions to host their tournament, helping to pay for transportation and accommodation costs for the teams, relieving parents and teachers of a roadblock to young ruggers participating.

I was fortunate to be present at the stadium for the Kaji finals in Suva last year, and to hear the appreciation of the teachers and parents from Vanua Levu, Kadavu, Gau, Koro, Naitasiri and Navosa, who were no longer burdened with the cost of transport, lodging and kits. This brought a smile to my heart, for rugby should never be a sport where one’s success is based on their means. It’s a sport of the people –– where the only barrier is true grit, talent and determination –– and that’s what has made Fiji so great on the global stage.

I would like to thank Vodafone for their commitment to making rugby free and accessible to all Fijian boys and girls. I’m confident that FRU, together with executives from Fiji Secondary Schools Rugby, will make the most of this new partnership, paving the way for another successful Deans Competition.

Ladies and gentlemen, tonight, we will unveil exciting changes to the positioning of FRU, including a refreshed Fiji Rugby logo and other changes to its brand structure. This facelift also includes new Masi designs, unique to Fiji Rugby, to be applied to the jerseys of our national teams and other applications, reflecting our culture and heritage and creating a sense of continuity and connection to the values of our teams.

Our warmest thanks to the artists for their help and enthusiasm with a project that will quite literally change the face of rugby in Fiji. I think that everyone here will be excited to see the more modern and streamlined brand –– changes that were careful to respect the traditional look we all love, while giving it a more modern and clean-looking upgrade that allows for wider use with FRU’s partners.

Looking back at 2018, one of the most fulfilling aspects of the year was seeing the new and exciting talent making its way up through our pathway system ¬–– from the Under 18 Team, to the Under 20 Team, to the Fiji Warriors Team, then up to the Fiji Airways Drua, and ultimately to the Flying Fijians. Through the Fiji Airways Drua, new players who made their debut in the NRC have gone on to play for the 7s Team, the Flying Fijians, or with overseas contracts. Each of these success stories is testament of the strength of FRU, and each story brings us great pride not only as an organisation, but as a nation looking to uplift our people.

Success wasn’t limited to the individuals, though –– our Under 20s won the Under 20 Junior World Trophy, and will compete in the World Championship in Argentina in May. It’s also exciting to see members of that Under 20 Team do so well in the National 7s Team. In fact, all of our national teams –– both men’s and women’s –– punched above their weight in 2018, and continue to do all Fijians proud. Case in point: Who could forget the historical win by the Flying Fijians against the Mighty French Team last November? It was another David-versus-Goliath story that will go down in the history books.

Reflecting on the success of our various teams in 2018 and the growing number of competitions and new pathways for both men’s and women’s rugby, I have great confidence that the future of Fijian rugby is brighter than ever. As we look ahead, I wish John McKee and his team great success at the Rugby World Cup in Japan this September, and I know we will all be cheering for Gareth Baber and his team to see continued success –– not only in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, but also as they build towards the Olympics in 2020.

And to all our other coaches and teams who represent our country on the world stage, the Fijiana, the Warriors, the Drua, the Under 20s –– a job well done on your achievements in 2018. Every time you don the Fiji jersey, you have hundreds of thousands of supporters, here at home and all around the world, at your back.

But to those many fans –– I want to speak to you directly. I want you to never be blinded for your passion for the game, and never forget that these players are, above all else, Fijians. They are people, just like you and me. That’s why I was so disappointed to hear that players on our 7s team have become the victims of online hatred and bullying, with “keyboard warriors” levelling personal attacks on social media. This is not how a true fan acts. Even our 7s boys –– among the strongest men in our country –– are not immune to the immense pain that can be inflicted by cowards on their computers. I was also disappointed to see political statements being made about our team, going so far as to suggest they should intentionally lose their games as some form of protest. We must also never forget that for these players, this is more than just a game –– it’s their passion, and it’s their profession. They have loved ones who inspire them to pour their heart and soul into every match. Rugby has always been a uniter in Fiji, not a divider. It uplifts us in good times and in bad, and it gives us a reason to gather with our families and friends. It gives us an escape from the stress and the drama of everyday life. Let’s keep it that way, and pledge to support our ruggers through thick and thin. Be the fans they deserve.

Ladies and gentlemen, as the Chairman said earlier, it’s not just the award recipients we are honouring tonight. None of them would have made it to where they are today without the network that has worked so hard to uplift them. To the families, the players, the volunteers and officials, and every fan across Fiji, I thank you for everything that you do to make our game truly great, truly special, and unlike anything else in the world. I thank those who work quietly behind the scenes to make rugby run like a well-oiled machine –– the FRU board, management and staff of all levels provide unseen support to our teams to ensure they are constantly prepared, every time they run out onto the field, allowing our players to focus wholly on their performance and shine for the world to see.

My friends, I know you’ll join me in congratulating the various award winners tonight, and in sharing the tremendous optimism that I hold for the future of Fiji Rugby. In 2019 and beyond, greatness lies ahead.

Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.

© 2018 Ministry of Communications