NZ Rugby salutes Pacific icons who gave their all to rugby

NZ Rugby salutes Pacific icons who gave their all to rugby

New Zealand Rugby Chief Executive Mark Robinson acknowledged the heartache of losing both Joeli Vidiri and Fesolai Va’ainga Tuigamala this week.

He says it’s been incredibly difficult with the loss of two men who have such standing in rugby and in their communities.

“Joeli was a pioneer for Fijian rugby and set the platform for the many Fijian stars who have followed him. 

“Together with Jonah Lomu at Counties Manukau they formed one of the most formidable partnerships we’ve seen, and his performances for the Blues helped put Super Rugby on the map.”

Joeli Vidiri died in Los Angeles on Wednesday after suffering three cardiac arrests. It is understood he was not vaccinated against COVID 19.

Both he and Jonah Lomu continued to play rugby whilst battling years of kidney and renal failure.

Joeli had a kidney transplant in 2015.

Family friend Frank Robanakadavu says Vidiri was in America to seek medical attention as he feared his body was not responding well to medicines.

After professional rugby, Vidiri worked at Mitre 10 in Pukekohe and sought solace in his faith as a pastor at the All Nations Church.

He was devoted to ensuring his mother and siblings were taken care of financially.

It is understood Vidiri and his wife had been in the US for some time.

Vidiri came to New Zealand in 1994 after representing Fiji in both 15s and 7s.

He made his first appearance for the All Blacks Sevens at the 1998 Commonwealth Games and won the gold medal.​

Some of his best rugby was during his time with Counties Manukau in the NPC and the Auckland Blues in the Super 12 competition. 

Wesley College rugby coach Amanaki Palavi remembers watching the towering Jonah Lomu and Vidiri on the wings for Counties deliver one of the most lethal combinations he’s ever seen in professional rugby.

“Probably one of the best in the world.”

He was referring to the NPC semi-final in 1997 when Counties found themselves down 33-9 against Waikato in Hamilton at half time. 

After one of the greatest comebacks in NPC history, Counties won 43–40.

“Man I don’t think Waikato knew what hit them. To have a fourth ranked province beat the number one was unheard of in those days and we knocked them out,” Amanaki says.

“It was the same when Jonah and Vidiri played for the Blues.”

Former Counties Manukau Rugby Union chair Rod Gabb says they were phenomenal athletes for Counties Manukau, the Auckland Blues as well as the All Blacks. 

“They lifted Counties Manukau rugby to heights the union has never seen before. Wonderful guys and dearly miss them both.”

Jonah Lomu, Fesolai Va'ainga Tuigamala and Joeli Vidiri came from a generation of fleet footed island boys whose flair for open running rugby drew thousands to rugby stadiums.

They knew little of the corporate side of professional rugby and often not privy to the dealings that went on behind the scenes.

All they really wanted was to play for the world's best rugby team and inspire generations of Pacific players to follow their dreams.

Former All Black winger Joe Rokocoko says Vidiri gave every Fijian player inspiration in making their dreams come true and believing in themselves.

“The reason why I wanted to be a Counties and Blues man was because of you. I remember you gave us tickets to every single game Counties/Blues that you played at home. 

“You always had time for me and how you inspired me my cuz. Always beside me and supporting me since my first trial rep team Counties U14.

"I always wanted to fill that Blues jersey and carry on the legacy you had made and I hope I made you proud for carrying on what you left behind. 

“Proud blues player because of you. Thank you for believing in me."

Saturday’s Super Rugby Pacific encounter in Dunedin saw the Hurricanes’ edge Auckland Blues 33-32 at Forsyth Bar Stadium.