Bula! Fiji’s fascinating connection to Rochdale

Josh McAllister
Fiji Rochdale RLWC2021

Rochdale is a big name in Fiji. It was often the first town mentioned when locals spoke about England in the country. 

Those were the words spoken by the late Mike Ratu, one of Rochdale’s most iconic players. Ratu Senior was one of the original 212 Fijian pioneers to sign up for the British Army in the early 1960s, and later featured for the Hornets.

Rochdale’s connection with the Pacific Nation is a fascinating story – and one that should be celebrated this World Cup.

Joe Levula and Orisi Dawai were the first players to leave the country to play rugby league in England in the 1960s – featuring for Rochdale, with almost 10,000 miles separating the South Pacific island from the town.

Dawai featured for Fiji’s national rugby union side and was also captain during tours of New Zealand, Australia and Tonga. The ball-handling centre caught the eye of then-Rochdale chairman Arthur Walker in the 1950s, alongside Levula who was then a Fijian sporting superstar.

The pair made the move to Rochdale in the 1960s, after Rochdale placed an advertisement in the Fiji Times inviting players from the Pacific to come and play for the side.

During their RLWC2021 preparations, the Fiji camp spent their first week in Rochdale, learning about the history.

Kevin Naiqama: It was an eye opening experience

“We had a presentation by a staff member at Rochdale. To be honest, even myself, it was a big eye opener into the connection,” captain Kevin Naiqama told Love Rugby League. 

“For us, that’s where the first Fiji player came to play rugby league and made the switch from rugby union. The headline was on a bulletin in the local paper called the ‘Flying Fijians’, that’s where it originated from. 

“To have been given a presentation on what it means to the town of Rochdale and to see the history that they have with Fiji, it was an eye opening experience for our boys. 

“We have a lot of admiration as well for the town of Rochdale to give people an opportunity to come to this side of the world and play rugby league.”

“They laid the platform for us”

Fijian forward and Melbourne Storm star Tui Kamikamica also spoke of last week’s presentation, adding: “To see that the first ever rugby league Fijian boys came over here and played, it’s a really massive thing to know.

“I always thought the first Fijian to play rugby league was in Australia, but it was here in England. It’s far away from home. It was interesting history to know and I’m pretty grateful to be here as well.

“It’s my first time in England and to be here with this group and to come to Rochdale and see the history of the Fijian players who had played here, they laid the platform for us.

“Back in Fiji, nobody played rugby league at that time. But they took a few risks and now look at us. There’s guys playing NRL and Super League.”

Fiji open their RLWC2021 campaign on Saturday against Australia at Leeds’ Headingley Stadium.

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