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23 October 2014
Finding an old photograph of Fiji's national rugby team coming out to play Phil Bennett's 1977 Lions in Suva has brought back many memories of being at the ground that day on August 16 1977. [Click on 'Favourite Photos' on this page] Myself and Nigel Starmer-Smith of the BBC were the only broadcasters there that day. We were positioned high up on the most rickety scaffolding you ever saw. We were both frightened a number of times when it swayed noticably when the wind gusts blew in off the nearby sea.
[One other point about the broadcasts I can recall is that we could hear from our high tower position the raised and excitable voice below of the local radio-man Graham Eden. Our producer Fred Szydlik remarked memorably that 'the Fiji people didn't need a transmitter to hear Graham's call; there's no doubt he could be heard miles away!' Graham has become a good friend over the years. We still see each other regularly on the road and remind ourselves of that great day.]
For a complete ego trip; here is what I wrote about the Fiji v British Isles game in my book of that tour; the un-memorably named - 'Lions '77' The book recorded a tough tour conducted by the Lions in mostly wet and muddy conditions with the Lions growing increasingly sad as their hopes of beating the Tane Norton-led All Blacks diminished by the week.
One place the 1977 Lions did really enjoy was Fiji. The relief of getting out of New Zealand, plus the warmth and welcome of the Fijian people (and of course the sunshine) convinced the team that this was the most enjoyable stop of the tour. 'This is the life,' said Charlie Faulkner relaxing beside the hotel pool, 'next time the Lions come down under they should play 26 games in Fiji and one in New Zealand!' That was said in Faulkner's nicest manner, for he was one who was reluctant to head home, his three weeks on tour (as a replacement) clearing giving him a taste for more.
There was a good deal of light-hearted banter as to who would play the game against Fiji. 'It'll be the first fifteen names out of the hat,' coach John Dawes joked at one point, but in the end he bowed to injury worries and the strength of the Fiji team and released a team which included eight of his fourth test team which had lost so narrowly to New Zealand only four days earlier in Auckland.
The local hospitality was something else and in the Lions state of relieved euphoria, having rid themselves of all New Zealanders (except me I suppose; I was the only Kiwi reporter there) they settled down to relaxing and some big public drinking sessions. 'We lost a day here somewhere,' said manager George Burrell to the aftermatch crowd. He was not referring to crossing the dateline or losing his calendar.
Sixteen members of the team went out one night, including some British pressmen, and ran up a bill of $700 [Note; I would guess about $2500nz in today's money]. 'The food was nice,' Irishman Moss Keane recalled the next day, 'ah but the wine was terrific,' and he rolled his eyes back into his head in satisfied reverie.
When the party returned to the hotel, Moss was ceremonially thrown into the swimming pool, clothes and all. 'And as I can't swim,' he said,' I got into immediate difficulties.' But with pulling and boisterous late night teamwork he was hauled out and the festivities raged on. This happened on the Monday night, only 16 hours before the team was to play the might of Fijian rugby, in rampant and hungry mood, at Suva's Buckhurst Park.
The Lions attitude and devotion to winning in Fiji was not all it might have been. Not that it mattered. The next afternoon when Fiji beat 'The Famous Lions,' as they were billed, by 25-21, it was one of the most exciting and enthralling sporting occasions I have witnessed. For a start there was the crowd: all 20,000 of them drummed into a ferment of excitement, because Fiji who had beaten Tonga in a recent three-test series, had a great chance of winning.
It was a also truly colourful sight. The ground is back-dropped by waving coconut palms and the Pacific Ocean; and the playing pitch all year round is as hard as a rock.
Fiji ran the ball at every opportunity and deserved their win. They scored 5 tries (worth 4 points then), some of them thrilling and all containing excellent authority in their execution.
To their credit the Lions contributed fully to the spectacle, not for any great running moves - they were more content to kick for position than spin the ball, but for the way they contributed to the spirit of the occasion.
In the scoring the Lions drew up to 21-all but then Vuato Narisia, the flanker, took a pass from his captain, Pio Bosco Tikoisuva, and dived, like an Olympic swimmer off the blocks, for the winning try. The noise was deafening and the clamour loud and rapturous; the score enabled Fiji to score its first-ever win over a major touring team.
As the players left the field, Fiji's famed Police Band played 'Isa Lei' the Fijian farewell song, and then 'Now is The Hour'. The Lions team boarded the windowless vehicle still in their playing gear, and as they were driven down a dusty road out of the Park the emotion of the day reached its climax. The happy crowd pushed towards the slow-moving bus, the Lions waved and shook hands by the hundreds, and then the band struck up 'Will Ye No Come Back Again?'
Nobody in the touring party seemed to mind losing, as the Fijian's delight was infectious. It was interesting to me though that the fact that the (local) referee had failed to whistle some dreadfully obvious forward passes and had blown a penalty count of 22-4 against the Lions seemed quickly forgotten.
Born in Stratford, Taranaki and All Black prop Mark Allen was forever known as 'Bull' (named after an American TV character). He became so popular Rugby Park in Taranaki was re-named the 'Bull Ring' for a time.
Headquarters for the game of rugby in Samoa. Apia Park is a ground with a colourful past. Just as Twickenham in London was once a market garden, and cabbages were grown at Lancaster Park in Christchurch during World War I, Apia Park in the capital city of Samoa was once a horse racing track and a golf course.
Situated close to the city, the ground was originally owned by the occupying German Government. The first horse racing was held on Kaiser Wilhelm II’s birthday in 1910. Later, Chinese, Melanesian and Samoan labourers ploughed the swampy land, aided by oxen-drawn carts. They levelled an inner field and plans for rugby were drawn up. The locals did not worry that a large, shady tree was left intact on what was to be inside the field of play.
Horse racing died out in 1939. The first rugby game on the park was in 1924 when an Apia Selection played a Pago Pago Naval XV. Apia won 33-0. During the same year a Fijian team on its way to play Tonga stopped in Apia. Its two games against the locals were split one win each. It is not recorded how the teams coped with playing around the tree!
These days the rebuilt ground, with its superb backdrop of palm trees and other native flora and fauna, must be one of the prettiest in the world.
Apia Park has always been a highly significant place for sport in Samoa. In 1991 before the advent of a home TV network, crowds used to come to the ground and sit for hours overnight waiting to watch on an imported giant TV screen the matches of (Western) Samoa at the World Cup in Britain.
For years the field was also used as a golf course, but in 1975 the inherent dangers of people walking near such a course led them to shift to a new venue, at the Royal Samoan Golf Club. Only then for the first time could rugby truly claim the grounds.
In 2007, Apia Park was one of the main venues for the 2007 Pacific Games. In 2015 it will play host many events at the Youth Commonwealth Games, the opening and closing ceremonies. It will also host the All Blacks from New Zealand for a much anticipated game against Manu Samoa. The ground has a capacity of 15,000.
In the Rugby World Cups 1987-2011 which final drew the biggest crowd?