Rugby fans were understandably fairly shocked when it was announced that Wallabies midfielder Samu Kerevi would be heading overseas at the end of 2019.
Just 26 years old at the time, Kerevi still had plenty to offer to Australia rugby – at all levels of the game.
Kerevi, who exited the World Cup with just 33 international caps to his name, was ruling himself out of selection for the test side for the upcoming future and effectively semi-retiring from international rugby.
And for what?
Kerevi signed with Suntory Sungoliath, a Japanese club team based out of west Tokyo, home to the likes of Matt Giteau, Tevita Li and Kotaro Matsushima.
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No doubt, the money on offer in Japan far trumped anything that Rugby Australia could throw at the growing superstar and the less rigorous Top League schedule would appeal to just about any rugby player trying to make the most out of their career – plus, getting to experience a culture as rich as Japan’s would be enticing for anyone.
But, surely that would come at the cost of the Reds captain asserting himself as not just one of the best Wallabies of all time, but one of the best midfielders to grace the game – alongside men like of Brian O’Driscoll, Stirling Mortlock and Tana Umaga.
For Samu Kerevi, however, the decision didn’t come down to money, the schedule or the change in culture – it was much simpler than that.
“I had to really think about what I wanted, in terms of legacy and family,” Kerevi told RugbyPass three months into his new contract in Japan.
“In the end, I made the call that wanting to be the best centre in the world and the best centre in Queensland had to take a backseat and I had to put my family first.”
Kerevi has two brothers, Josua and Jone.
Both live in Japan, with Josua living up north in Akita and playing rugby for the Northern Bullets, and Jone studying and playing rugby at Tenrei University near Osaka.
While anyone would want to move closer to their siblings if the opportunity presented itself, Kerevi is a particularly special case, having spent the better part of his life separated from his brothers.
Josua and Jone spent their early lives in Fiji while Samu relocated as young child to Brisbane with his grandparents.
“I call my grandparents mum and dad because they’ve raised me since I was a baby,” Kerevi said.
“My grandfather actually named me and he was the first one to hold me when I was born so that’s why I have that relationship with him.
“We actually moved from Fiji to the Solomon Islands and there was a coup that happened there so we got evacuated. We had to leave everything in the Solomon Islands with my grandparents’ family.
“Then, there was also a coup in Fiji so we weren’t allowed back there either.”
Kerevi and his family boarded a New Zealand military aircraft and they and the rest of the passengers started making plans for life in NZ but that’s not where the plane was destined to land.
Instead, the aircraft touched down in Brisbane – something all Wallabies fans will be thankful for.
Kerevi and his grandparents had nothing when they arrived except for the clothes on their backs and turned to the Salvation Army for help.
The Wallabies will play Fiji in a region not visited by Test rugby for 17 years. https://t.co/SzUfJJ0NPx
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 14, 2020
It was a tough time for his whole family – but not something that a pre-school aged Samu Kerevi could even begin to truly appreciate.
“When I was young, I didn’t even know what was going on,” Kerevi said.
“Leaving my parents and brothers behind was tough, but it’s probably not until I grew up and started to go back home and see the struggle that my family went through that I really appreciated it.”
Spending more than 20 years away from home would make anyone yearn for the brotherhood that they missed out on growing up and Kerevi is no exception.
In particular, Kerevi was disappointed that he wasn’t able to offer a helping hand in raising his younger brother, Jone.
“I didn’t get to teach him things like how to fight, shave or how to ride a bike – big brother lessons, you know?” said Kerevi.
“I don’t want to miss any more of my little brother’s growth. He’s basically his own man now and it’s sad for me that I didn’t have much input into that.
“There are little things that most brothers get to do that I missed out on.
“So that’s why I’m here. I want to contribute anything I can for him.”
That doesn’t mean the move to Japan has been easy for the Fijian-born blockbuster – he’s had to move away from the man who has raised him since he was a little boy.
“The hardest part for me to leave Australia behind was him,” Kerevi said of his granddad.
“We’ve lived together since I was a baby but it’s been just the two of us since my grandmother passed away [in 2013]. This year is the first time I’ve been away from him – I’d sometimes not see him for a few weeks when I went away on tour but it’s different now.
“I used to come home from training with the Reds and he’d have a cooked dinner waiting and we’d just watch Netflix together. It’s crazy not to have that normality anymore with him but thank God for technology.”
Fifteen years ago, the number of players that left Australia and New Zealand for other countries paled in comparison to numbers that are leaving now.
That’s partly to do with the finances on offer but the fact that someone can move away from home and still keep in regular contact has also made heading off-shore considerably easier.
That’s exactly what Kerevi’s found since leaving Brisbane.
“I can still FaceTime my grandad,” Kerevi said.
“He’s still learning – I FaceTime him and he has his camera up to his ear. He’s still getting along with technology.
“I introduced him to Netflix back in Australia and it just blows his mind.
“I try to call him and sometimes he hangs up on me because he’s watching Netflix. I’m going to delete his subscription if he doesn’t answer my calls.”
Whilst Kerevi’s ultimatum may have been a joke, it shows how seriously the Wallaby treats his commitments to his family.
It’s clear that although the move away from Kerevi’s adopted home has been tough, he’s still thriving in his new role as a readily on-call big brother.
“[Jone] came back from Fiji a couple of days ago,” Kerevi said.
“We just jammed Call of Duty [one of the Kerevis’ favourite past times] all night, I cooked him some ribs. It made me really happy.
“To be able to do that for my little brother is the whole reason I’m here.”
And what does Kerevi’s newfound role as big brother mean for his rugby future?
At present, Wallabies representatives need to have accrued 60 caps before they’re able to continue to be selected for the national side if they’re based overseas.
Kerevi is well under that required number of caps, but rumours are that the ‘Giteau Law’ could be amended in the future.
That might not be the only way that Kerevi finds himself playing for Australia again, however.
“The Wallabies jersey has always been in my heart,” Kerevi said.
“It’s something I always want to aspire to. I just don’t know what the future holds at the moment, I’m just trying to focus on day to day.
“My little brother is at university here for the next few years, which runs parallel to my contract.
“Spending three years here is not a bad way to replenish the body, relax the body and get it going again.”
Still, there are things more important to Samu Kerevi than clocking up more mileage with the Wallabies – which is exactly why he made the move to Japan in the first place.
“The legacy is important… but I don’t care about how others perceive me,” Kerevi said.
“My family know the sacrifices I’ve made and what I’m going to do for them – making sure my mum and dad don’t have to work as much in their life, making sure they’re settled and my granddad is settled.
“At this moment, that’s more important to me now.
“Whenever the time’s right, I’ll have those conversations [about returning home] but I’m just leaving it in God’s hands.
“Right now, I’m enjoying my time here and enjoying the ride.”
WATCH: Samu Kerevi’s fellow World Cup Wallaby James Slipper made the call earlier this year to re-sign with the Brumbies.
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