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Tony Webeck

Whether by design or accident, when Ben Nakubuwai was named to make his debut for Tweed Heads in Round 1, he was listed as 'Petero' Nakubuwai.

Dubbed “Little Petero” for his similarity to towering legend of the game Petero Civoniceva, Nakubuwai had signed with the Titans in the off-season after coming through the Under 20s at Melbourne and was out to take the next step in open company.

 

Carrying a nickname associated with a giant of Fijian rugby league can put undue pressure on a young player trying to make their way, but Civoniceva insists his influence pales in comparison to that of Ben's father, Pio Nakubuwai.

That Ben is playing well for Tweed Heads and takes on the aggressive PNG Hunters on Saturday; let alone rugby league at all; is due in no small part to the brave decision made by his father and a band of Fijian rugby players who saw a new future for themselves and those who would follow them in rugby league.

Although players of Fijian heritage had ventured abroad and made something of a name for themselves in the game, it wasn't until 1992 that rugby league was officially introduced into Fiji, members of the all-conquering Sevens team travelling to play in the World Sevens and knocking over the powerhouse Canberra team of the time.

It paved the way for the likes of Noa Nadruku to earn contracts to play in the Australian Rugby League who in turn laid a foundation for the players of today to set the competition alight with their breathtaking athleticism and speed.

Suliasi Vunivalu, Eloni Vunakece, Tui Kamikamica and Viliame Kikau are now regulars in the NRL and Civoniceva says they all owe those pioneers of 25 years ago a debt of gratitude for their brave decision to break away.

Civoniceva has worked closely with Nakubuwai with the Fijian national team in the past two years and while happy to assist in his development, believes his father is the hero he should try to emulate.

“I'd never put that expectation on the young man because he's his own man,” Civoniceva said of the comparisons.

“His father was a champion player and he needs to be known as the son of a champion rather than comparing him to me in any way.

“His father was a big, tough man that had a huge reputation and was a real pioneer for rugby league in Fiji.

“A lot of those early pioneers of rugby league in Fiji were really ostracised, not just playing-wise, but also in a political sense for leaving rugby union.

“The real trials and tribulations that they had to face because of that decision to leave rugby is really an amazing story.

“If I'm going to have anything to do with Fijian rugby league I'm going to make sure these guys are recognised and honoured, because if it wasn't for them guys like myself and Lote Tuqiri and Ben and all the other Fijian boys would probably have never had that opportunity.

"They were the real leaders."

The Fijian National Rugby League competition now consists of 12 teams spread across two conferences and the next phase in the nation's development is to enter a team in the Intrust Super Premiership NSW.

And as the PNG Hunters have shown in the Intrust Super Cup the past four seasons, exposure to regular top-flight rugby league for local players is the single best way to elevate their position in the international game.

This story first appeared on qrl.com.au

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