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For a little nation, Fiji carries a lot of weight in rugby

When Waisale Serevi was 10, he watched as a team from his native Fiji prepared for a rugby match with the famed British Lions by performing the "Cibi," a traditional war dance that the Pacific Island athletes had transformed into an inspirational and intimidating prematch ritual.

Waisale Serevi, once a ruby player for his native Fiji, is now introducing the sport to the U.S. (Vincent Yu/AP)
Waisale Serevi, once a ruby player for his native Fiji, is now introducing the sport to the U.S. (Vincent Yu/AP)Read more

When Waisale Serevi was 10, he watched as a team from his native Fiji prepared for a rugby match with the famed British Lions by performing the "Cibi," a traditional war dance that the Pacific Island athletes had transformed into an inspirational and intimidating prematch ritual.

The Fijians went on that day to upset the Brits, who had imported the game to the island nearly a century earlier, and Serevi saw his future.

Not that he had much choice.

Rugby is Fiji's major sport - its "only sport," Serevi insists. Of that nation's 950,000 residents, 80,000 are registered in rugby leagues and tens of thousands more play unofficially.

"It is all we know," said Serevi, born in 1968 in Suva on the island of Viti Levu.

He would become a national hero, an elusive back on national rugby teams for decades; a professional in Japan, England, and France; and a star on the Fijian teams that became among the best in the world at sevens, the shorter, swifter version of the sport.

This weekend, Serevi will attend the 2011 USA Sevens Collegiate Rugby Championships in Chester. And in the years between now and 2016, when the sport is added to the summer Olympic schedule, he likely will be among those influencing the fate of the first U.S. team.

"A lot of these players we will see this weekend are capable of being in the 2016 Olympics," he said. "If they are guided properly and trained properly, they will be there to represent the U.S."

Serevi hopes that he will be among those providing much of that guidance and training.

Retired now, he has relocated to Seattle and earlier this year started Serevi Rugby Systems, a program aimed at introducing and indoctrinating U.S. athletes to sevens. Though still relatively obscure, sevens' American popularity is growing rapidly.

"While interest and participation in rugby sevens is increasing across the U.S., there is much work to be done to bring it to the same level as other countries," Serevi said.

Serevi represented Fiji 39 times internationally in traditional rugby - fifteens - but it wasn't until 1989 that he did so in sevens.

"A lot of players who have made their mark in fifteens play sevens," he said.

As that team's captain, he led Fiji Sevens to World Cup championships in 1997 and 2005. In the latter, he scored the match-winning try in a sudden-death semifinal victory over England and then paced Fiji to the championship over favored New Zealand.

He finished as the World Cup's all-time leading points and goal scorer, its second-best try scorer.

While fifteens tends to be dominated by large bruising men, speed and elusiveness are pivotal in sevens. At 5 feet, 7 inches and 180 pounds, Serevi felt at home in the more wide-open game.

"I'm just a small guy," he said. "And in sevens there is a lot of space there. For me, it was much easier to play. I have a lot of skills and speed so it's natural for me to play sevens. I'm just a small guy running away from bigger players. That's what we do in sevens. We run away from the big players. I call it 'catch me if you can.' That's why sevens is interesting to me."

Serevi's grandfather and uncle represented Fiji in rugby. And when, as a 10-year-old, the famed victory over the British Lions hooked him, it did so for good.

"I liked the running, the camaraderie, everything," he said. "The good thing about sevens is that all teams are equal. Just one mistake or one great play can determine a match."

Through the British, who explored and colonized the region, rugby gained a foothold in the South Pacific. Australia, New Zealand, Samoa, and Tonga are among the world's powers, though in American Samoa, home of Steelers all-pro Troy Polamalu and several other NFL players, it's American football that has caught on.

"It's because it is 'American Samoa' that it is so popular there," said Serevi. "It's only a two- or three-hour flight from Fiji to there, but in Fiji no one plays American football. Only rugby."

A Look at the Rugby Tournament

Here is Rugby Magazine's evaulation of the men's teams competing at this weekend's USA Sevens Collegiate Rugby Championships at PPL Park:

Pool A

California: Derek Asbun, Tom Rooke, Danny Barrett, James Bailes, Seamus Kelly, Blaine Scully, and Dustin Muhn are Rugby Magazine all-Americans.

LSU: Bobby Johns and former USA under-20 star Adam Ducoing have been the center of LSU's rugby efforts for four years. They are dynamic runners and leaders. Jayson deLeaumont is a fit, smart player and a steadying influence.

Ohio State: Nate Ebner has become one of the faces of this tournament. A USA under-19 and under-20 star, he stopped playing rugby to focus on football at Ohio State. He returned to rugby at last year's CRC a bigger, stronger, and more powerful athlete. He is a key part of a young, athletic but green team.

Penn State: The Nittany Lions won the recent Subaru 7s in Wilmington, Del. They are likely led by Chris Saint and Joe Baker.

Pool B

Utah: Thretton Palamo's play in helping Utah win the 2010 CRC title earned him an invitation to play football at Utah. Leading the Utes is Don Pati, the spark plug scrumhalf who scored the winning try in the 2010 tournament. Pati is a Rugby Magazine all-American and will link with big Scott Metcalf in the forwards and the speedy Tonata Lauti out wide.

Dartmouth: Brothers Chris and Nick Downer work well together. Chris Downer and Paul Jarvis were named College Premier Division Rugby East all-conference players by Rugby Magazine.

Notre Dame: Phil Eloff is a former USA star in both 15s and Sevens, one of the greatest all-time for the Irish. Andrew Mullen is a versatile player who has the ability to play as a forward or a back.

Boston College: Stewart Harris has played summer sevens with Old Mission Beach Athletic Club in San Diego, under top sevens coach Craig Hartley, and that experience will be crucial for the Eagles.

Pool C

Navy: Sean Rohrs is the emotional leader of this team, a big, strong, bruising runner. James Ousley is an exciting local player from Philadelphia.

Army: Ben Leaatigaga, who finished second in the College Premier Division in tries scored and was a Rugby Magazine all-conference player, is a big, fast wing with an excellent sidestep. Will Holder, a Rugby Magazine all-American, is multiskilled and will likely take the team's kicks.

Central Washington: Kellen Gordon is a versatile and intelligent player, while Tim Stanfill and Penisoni Rokocoko provide outstanding pace. But this team's strength is teamwork. It is probably the most polished sevens team.

North Carolina: Coach Mike Groenwald won a national Division II club title with Raleigh, where he kicked the winning points. Alex Lee is a Rugby Magazine all-American.

Pool D

Temple: Philadelphia product Gareth Jones spent much of the year studying abroad, where he also played rugby for Young Munster, one of the top clubs in Ireland. He tracks as a potential USA player and is a Rugby Magazine all-American. His leadership in a mostly Pennsylvania-born team will be huge.

Arizona: Brett Thompson, a football player at Arizona, is tall, strong, and retains his rugby smarts. Rugby Magazine all-American Peter Tiberio has played for the USA Sevens team and is one of the fastest players in the competition.

Oklahoma: Kelton Miller is a former USA under-20 player who is playing special teams for the Sooners football team. Zac Givens and Arrynn Wilkinson are also talented players to watch.

Texas: San Diego product Scott Lynch and Texan Noah Villalobos have been the leading scorers in the team's warm-up tournaments, while Stephen Mahoney and Tod Mullen provide the leadership.


Friday: Women's qualifying games, Drexel (43d Street and Powelton Avenue) - Noon-7 p.m.

Saturday: Men's qualifying games, PPL Park,

10 a.m.-8 p.m.

Sunday: Men's and women's quarterfinal, semifinal, and championship games, PPL Park, starting at 8 a.m.

Temple's games

Friday at Drexel: Women vs. Penn State, 1:20 p.m.; women vs. Brown, 3:40 p.m.; women vs. Virginia, 3:40 p.m.

Saturday at PPL Park: Men vs. Arizona, 12:10 p.m.; men vs. Texas, 3:16, p.m.; men vs. Oklahoma, 7:30 p.m.

TV coverage

Saturday: Universal Sports, noon-2 p.m.; Versus, 2-4 p.m. and 6-8 p.m.; NBC10, 4-6 p.m

Sunday: Universal Sports, noon-2 p.m.; Versus, 2-4 p.m.; NBC10, 4-6 p.m.


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