Rugby-Kemu Valetini, Fijian Drua look to prove they belong in Super Rugby

  • Rugby
  • Friday, 02 Jun 2023

FILE PHOTO: Selestino Ravutaumada of Fijian Drua runs with the ball during the Super Rugby Pacific Round 13 match between the NSW Waratahs and the Fijian Drua at Allianz Stadium in Sydney, May 20, 2023. AAP Image/Mark Evans via REUTERS.

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Having watched his younger brother Rob make his mark at the ACT Brumbies and Wallabies, late blooming flyhalf Kemu Valetini hopes to help Fijian Drua book their first appearance in the Super Rugby Pacific finals in their second season.

Both Valetini and the Drua are on a mission to prove they belong in a competition that until last year was a closed shop for Pasifika teams.

Though 10th of 12 teams, the Drua can still snatch a quarter-final spot thanks to a generous format which allows the top eight sides to battle in the post-season.

That will require beating the seventh-placed Queensland Reds in Suva on Saturday and hoping the Otago Highlanders and Western Force lose their matches in the final regular season round.

Having won all but one of their matches in Fiji this season, the Mick Byrne-coached Drua will be at least confident of fulfilling their end of the bargain.

"The boys are really excited about the challenge this week," Valetini told Reuters from Nadi, Fiji.

"It's not going to be an easy task against the Reds. We'll have our work cut out for us but if results go our way, we'll be stoked to be in the finals hopefully at the end of this weekend."

At 28 and after plenty of career setbacks, Valetini is thrilled just to have a spot on the bench for the Super Rugby team representing the island nation and his parents' birthplace.

Born in Melbourne, he arrived in Fiji late last year with low expectations and only a training contract for the Drua after a strong season for Manly Marlins in the Shute Shield, New South Wales's premier state competition.

Despite his heritage, adjusting to the tropical conditions and the slow pace of Fijian life was a challenge for a big city boy more used to chilly winters in southern Australia.

"There was a bit of a language barrier. I didn't really speak Fijian at all when I was growing up," Valetini said.

"My parents spoke a lot to us but we never really picked it up. So coming here I was a bit nervous at the start."

Having plenty of relatives around Lautoka, where the Drua play half their home games, helped Valetini feel right at home, though.

Within minutes of taking the field late in his Drua debut, he was the toast of the nation when he slotted a match-winning penalty after the 80th minute in Lautoka to topple defending champions Canterbury Crusaders 25-24.

"A lot of people said it was like a dream debut for me to come on in the last five or so minutes, with the game still in the balance," said Valetini.

"For us as a whole team, to beat the champions, it was a massive achievement - especially in the second year of the competition."

Valetini repeated the trick in Suva a month ago as he booted two penalties in the last five minutes to give the Drua a 27-24 win over the Wellington Hurricanes.

With his loose forward brother all but certain to be one of the first selected for the Wallabies' World Cup squad, Valetini had no hesitation when asked whether he would like to play for Fiji.

"I would love to play for the national team," he said.

"It's not something I can control as to which way the coaches want to go.

"Now, I've just got to do what I can to the best of my ability."

(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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