Light at the end of Fiji's tunnel
FOR fans of Fiji rugby, the confirmation this week that Aliposo Waqailiti is to be the new national sevens team coach, is the first good news since Fiji last won the Hong Kong Sevens in 1992.
Waqailiti's triumph in a closed-door, five-name ballot held by the Fiji Rugby Football Union sets in motion the beginning of a new era in Fiji sevens - one that could possibly eclipse the record of deposed coach Ratu Kitione Vesikula whose team won three consecutive Hong Kong crowns starting in 1990.
The decision by the FRFU was a brave one, made by a committee historically shy of making brave decisions. It was, after all, the same executive committee that doodled and dawdled over the Fiji 15s team's crashing fall from being the 1991 World Cup's fifth-seeded side to also-rans.
However, the move reflects the desperate urgency of the situation for a country like Fiji which has only one real claim to fame but which in 1993 found itself twice beaten both in Hong Kong and in the semifinals of the inaugural Sevens World Cup at Murrayfield.
Waqailiti's triumph is therefore the story of Ratu Kitione's failure as the two are inextricably linked.
The decision to dump Kitione or ''Tukiti'', as he is belovedly known in Fiji, puts to an end an era of Fiji rugby that was more mystical than methodical, but which nonetheless left a searing impression of Fijian invincibility on all those who remember the great finals in the early 90s.
The fall of the seemingly-invincible Tukiti allows Fiji to close the door on a chapter of their rugby history that really defies logical explanation. It happened sure enough, but nobody really knows why.
Tukiti never played representative rugby at any level and could almost never explain his tactics in a coherent manner to those who tried to understand.
He was a preacher and high chief, a potent combination in any country. His mercurial ways and powerful pre-game speeches entranced his players and drove them to play like men possessed.
But the wheels fell off Tukiti's barnstorming team when rugby league poached the heart out of the victorious 1991 side and then again in 1993 when Tukiti's clannish style saw him pick a side that was woefully unfit and totally reliant on the outlandish talents of Waisale Serevi.
By Fiji's high standards, it was a disgraceful performance from a seven-time winning side. Only when the Hong Kong Stadium crowd fell in behind the Western Samoans in their 14-12 finals win was it obvious that the impossible had happened - Fiji were losers and had gone from cherished underdogs to swaggering fools in the space of two short days.
In the end the anguish that followed was masked only by the obligatory courteousness that has to be accorded Tukiti by virtue of his chiefly status.
There were only few articles in the press that dared point the finger.
For a country that is instinctively easy-going, the anguish of defeat helped focus the mind wonderfully. The FRFU, having presided over the virtual suicide of the 15s game, could not afford another dead body on its hands.
Tukiti's style of rugby was therefore knocked on the head when the FRFU ignored his name on the ballot and picked Waqauliti (the voting results were never released).
His coaching epitaph could read: A wonderful diversion for three glorious years, but too reliant on a charismatic man who grew unreliable.
By complete contrast Waqailiti represents everything Tukiti isn't. He is a commoner, a bank officer and former secondary school teacher.
Teachers hold enormous respect in Fiji, which has one of the highest literacy rates in the developing world. Waqailiti is therefore a man of impressive standing but quite at the opposite end to Tukiti.
While Tukiti drew his strength and inspired his players with tales of warriors and missions of conquest from Fiji's cannibal past, Waqailiti is a man of rational observation, acute tactical skills and a keen sense of coaching as an educator.
Whereas Tukiti never played, Waqailiti captained one of Fiji's best sides, the Ian Duncan-coached 1984 crown-winning team that pulled off the greatest thrashing, 26-0, a modern All Black side has ever endured in Hong Kong.
On assuming the role of sevens coach, which in Fiji is like being asked to sit at the Last Supper, Waqailiti assured rugby fans that his most important job was ''to ensure that justice is done to all the players''.
After the eccentricities of Tukiti's selection process, this was music to many ears.
''Everyone will want his or her own favourite team, but we can only make it if we pick the right men,'' said Waqailiti, putting all Fiji players on notice until the National Sevens Championships in the first week of March.
What does Waqailiti have to work with? Last year's captain Vesi Rauluni is serving a season-long ban for punching a referee, while winger Filimoni Seru has switched codes to rugby league.
Other than those two, Waqailiti has a full slate to work with. This includes Waisale Serevi, who was recently cleared to play in this year's tournament by the International Rugby Board after he successfully backed out of league contract with the Brisbane Crushers.
Waqailiti was the first-ever coach to play Serevi in Hong Kong, when he debuted here in 1989. It was a Serevi try, disallowed by referee Ian Scott, that cost Fiji the game in 10-12 semi-final loss to the All Blacks.
Serevi's recent on-off relationship with bear-hugging Australian league officials seems to have sharpened his skills and appetite for union.
Playing for a scratch Fiji club side, Serevi scored three second-half tries in the 35-12 finals of the Punta Del Este Sevens mid-January to finish off an All Blacks team boasting Eric Rush, Ant Strachan, Glen Osbourne and Junior Paramore.
Fiji's most famous radio commentator Graham Eden, somewhat confusingly compared Serevi's new-found desire to win in Hong Kong to ''a hot potato hanging in the breeze''.
With Serevi comes Mesake Rasari. Although last year the big lock forward was a shadow of his 1992 self, his knee injury has been treated successfully.
Last year Tukiti, who shares close traditional links with Rasari, in a moment of pure madness insisted on taking him and his gammy knee to Hong Kong.
Waqailiti may well yet select Rasari. The difference is that if he does you now know the selection will be on merit.