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.
The United States? Well, the game is played here, too, but not very much and supposedly not very well. Still, the Metropolitan New York Rugby Union All-Stars wanted a match with the Fiji National Team, which was on a world tour, and the Fijians obliged, the first national rugby side ever to do so. Once the match was struck, however, the New Yorkers began to visualize the Fijians as the world's biggest people. Though they knew nothing of Fijian history their fears were unintentionally tinged with sick humor. "They'll eat us alive," was the word around Manhattan's East Side rugby bars, where bandages and bruises run a close second to beer and booze.
The night before the game New York's O'Mahoneys, Donellis and Gustafsons hosted the Naucabalavus, Batibisagas and Tokairavuas at a welcome dinner. Some of the Fijians were statuesque; their features and impassive stares "bore a startling resemblance to those of the famous Easter Island monoliths, and at first they were hardly more animated. Then someone mentioned rugby, the magic word, and suddenly the Fijians were articulate, engaging guests.
"Nice bola," they kept saying when a waitress passed through the room. In Fiji, bola is a slang term for girl. Many of the visitors had blue parallel marks tattooed on their wrists, "to keep demons away," said Sela Toga, the team captain. "My grandfather put them on me when I was a boy," he said, smiling, "but none of us really believe in them anymore." All had attended English-language schools in Fiji, a British colony until recently, and both sides agreed that should New York make a respectable showing, oh, say a 49-3 loss, then other world rugby powers would soon be stopping by for a game or two.
Next day was the coldest of the fall. It was 32� at noon, and the game was to be at night in Downing Stadium on windswept Randall's Island in the East River. In Fiji when it drops to 60� they start worrying about a return of the Ice Age, and some of the visitors were wearing overcoats for the first time in their lives. Rugby, of course, is played in shorts, and at game time it was 27� with a 15-mile-an-hour wind. Many of the 1,500 at the game wondered how all this would affect the Fijians' spectacular passing game. Even so, few gave New York a chance.
"They must be bluffing," someone said after a scoreless 10 minutes and a slow Fijian start. Then suddenly New York's Art Sprinkel grabbed the ball at midfield and took it 35 yards down the sideline. There were a few lateral passes and Joe Cody took it over for a try, the rugby equivalent of a touchdown, and New York led 3-0.
Sprinkel is a fourth-year medical student at Columbia, and unlike most of the Americans, who are former college football players, his sport was basketball. This seems to give him an advantage. Forward passing is illegal in rugby, and Sprinkel always appears to know where to locate a receiver. "In football you look ahead," his teammate Ed Malmstrom explained, "and you try to set up your blockers. In rugby you've got to know who's behind you."
A few minutes later New York's Geoff Clarke, an accountant from Cornwall, England, got a three-point penalty kick, and no one believed it but there it was: New York 6, Fiji 0.
"Any minute they'll destroy us." a New York fan said, almost as Josateki Radrodro, a Fijian government clerk, burst down the sidelines for a try, and it was 6-3. Then Nasivi Ravouvou, a sugarcane farmer like many of his teammates, spurted 50 yards for another try. He converted, and when the 40-minute half had ended it was 8-6 Fiji.
Earlier, New York's John Barnes had made a prophetic remark. "They'll beat us by a lot with their passing," he said, "or we'll win by a little." Fiji did not forget its passing game; it just didn't work in the Ice Age.