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Farewell and come back, Fiji
Dan Levin
December 07, 1970
The South Pacific is peopled with nesians, Poly, Micro and Mela, and off in its northwest corner is Fiji, a melting pot for them all. The pot clich� is especially apt, because not too long ago Fijians were still dining on one another, but now they joke about all that. In fact, a group of Fijian sports who were in the United States last week preferred to talk about rugby, which is much more civilized and only slightly less gentle. The Fijians are quite good at rugby. Last June they scored 500 points in five matches at the South Pacific Games, which is something like Georgia Tech beating Cumberland 222-0 five times in a row.
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December 07, 1970

Farewell And Come Back, Fiji

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"I've never seen so many white jerseys all together," said John Tait, a selector of the New York team. "Whenever one Fijian gets the ball, the whole team is lined out behind him ready to receive." And Fiji did flip the ball around like popping corn, but nearly all its rallies ended with the ball bouncing off frigid fingers. Fiji also had far greater speed than New York, but this was somewhat neutralized by harder American tackling, learned in football, and in New York's rugged, close-in play in the scrumdowns, rugby's most familiar formation.

In a scrumdown the ball is thrown on the ground in the midst of a huddle of eight forwards from each side. The forwards use their feet to pass the ball out to the waiting backs. They are very strange sights for the newcomer to rugby, these scrumdowns, and the whole thing resembles nothing so much as a 16-headed 32-legged half-human centipede with gas pains.

By the second half it was 24� and even the New Yorkers were blue; the Fijians, in mid-nightmare, had spent the five-minute break thinking warming thoughts of home and tending to bleeding legs. There is no padding allowed in rugby, and the cold, dead grass surface of Downing Stadium might as well have been cement.

As the second half began, New York's Clarke made his second penalty kick, and it was 9-8 New York. Then another sugarcane farmer named Josateki Sovau scored a try to make it 11-9 Fiji, and there it stayed until, with six minutes left, Geoff Clarke (who else?) made his third penalty kick and the score was 12-11 New York as the final whistle blew.

"Rugby all over the world will awaken to America now," Tait said, happily including Clarke among the Americans. "They'll see we're not just a wild bunch going around kicking people's heads off."

It was clearly the biggest moment for U.S. rugby since 1924, when a group of ex-college football players from California won the Olympic gold medal from France, against 20-to-1 odds. Deaths and injuries had soured Californians on college football around the turn of the century, so the players had turned to rugby, entering and actually winning their first Olympics in 1920. There was no Olympic rugby after 1924 but today more than 250 U.S. colleges have sides and it is the fastest-growing amateur team sport in the country. Little League rugby has begun in New York's Westchester County, and ex-college football players yearning for physical contact find it an ideal outlet. The New York All-Stars were chosen from eight area teams composed of doctors, salesmen, accountants, executives and visiting Britons.

Following the game Dr. Felix Emberson, Fiji's tour manager, graciously complimented his hosts at Les Pyrenees Restaurant on Manhattan's West Side. "From what you showed us this evening," he told them, "your players needn't fear disgrace against any side in the world."

"We were proud to be on the field with the Fijians," said Ray Cornvill, the New York coach. "We knew they ran and passed a lot, and we could never keep up with them there, but we had more power and we drove right in. Still, if we had run the ball wide open they would have laid 40 points on us. I wouldn't want to take them on in warm weather."

Before dinner 22-year-old Semesa K. Sikivou, a Fijian civil servant, approached New York Captain Richard Donelli, a husky dentist who quarter-backed the Columbia University football team in 1958-59 and is the son of Buff Donelli, the onetime Columbia coach. Sikivou and Donelli discussed their common interest.

"You pass without even looking where the ball is going," Donelli said. "How do you know someone will be there?"

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