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'Common ground was found': Why Fiji jerseys omitted 'Vaccinate' message

By Sam Smith
Fiji captain Leone Nakarawa dejected after another All Blacks try. All Blacks v Fiji, Steinlager Series, international rugby union test match. FMG Stadium Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Saturday 17 July 2021. © Copyright Photo: Bruce Lim / www.photosport.nz

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For all the quality of their on-pitch performances against the All Blacks this Steinlager series, Fiji have nonetheless continued to face ongoing controversy around the topic of their jersey sponsorship.

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Ahead of their first test against the All Blacks on 10th July, the Flying Fijian’s major sponsor, Fijian Airlines, had agreed to allow their prime advertising position on the front of the playing jerseys to be replaced with a message reading “Vaccinate Fiji”.

This was largely considered to be a move to help combat the impact COVID-19 has had in Fiji in recent times.

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The All Blacks were more composed in their rematch with Fiji on Saturday.
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The All Blacks were more composed in their rematch with Fiji on Saturday.

Indeed, Fiji head coach Vern Cotter in the lead up to the first test expressed the initial position of the squad as being one of support for the message to be advertised.

“Our Fijian rugby players … are honoured to carry forward a message that will help our people and our country emerge from the COVID crisis,” Cotter said.

When the side took the field for the first test in Dunedin however, it was in ‘clean’ jerseys, bearing no advertising at all.

When questioned as to why the sudden change had taken place, Cotter referenced the complexity of the issue and a lack of appropriate consultation with the players in the lead up to the match. Cotter also remained certain that a conclusion could be reached in time for the second test after further discussions with the players midweek.

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In the week leading up to the second test on 17th July, it emerged that discussions were ongoing between the players and the Fiji Rugby Union in the hopes of finding a solution. Following these discussions, a successful conclusion appeared to have been reached by 15th July, when Fiji Rugby chief executive John O’Connor announced the team would wear jerseys displaying the “Vaccinate Fiji” message, albeit with a caveat for the second test.

Come the second test on Saturday evening in Hamilton however and the jerseys once more did not feature the vaccination message, rather simply sporting the normal Fiji Airways sponsor.

Asked post-match the reasons behind this second sudden change Cotter pointed to the difficult nuances surrounding the decision that faced his team.

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“Like I said last week, it’s a complex issue,” he said. “The major sponsor offered the spot to ‘Vaccinate Fiji’, but there were questions around whether or not that was a directive. [The situation] came back to being a choice.”

Cotter, who himself revealed his knowledge of the stance came just a day before the match, went on to state that the message’s core aim of awareness had arguably already been achieved in some capacity throughout the week.

“It was all about awareness,” said Cotter. “I think this week with everyday people talking about it, [the message] got aired quite well. I think the awareness worked … I think what everybody wanted was achieved … The space on the jersey went back to the major sponsor and everyone thought, ‘Perhaps the job’s been done, we’ll just put the major sponsor back on and move on’. That’s effectively what happened. It was the union, the CEO and board, and the sponsor.”

The financial impact on Fiji Airways was also touched upon by Cotter.

“You can understand that Fiji Airways are suffering a little bit because of COVID and the fact that there is no tourism and no activity for the airline,” he said. “Everybody’s aware of that, the players know they’re the major sponsor and that they’re hurting. This seemed to be the fair way of representing that major sponsor. I think common ground was found and hopefully everybody’s happy.”

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'Common ground was found': Why Fiji jerseys omitted 'Vaccinate' message

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