Nemani Nadolo gets bashful when asked about wiring money to his Pacific Island brethren, as though taking credit for acts of kindness might be the only thing capable of halting this juggernaut in his tracks. It is not in the nature of the Fijian colossus to brag or virtue-signal. He’s not forking out for recognition; he’s doing it for his people.
Life for the hundreds of Island boys scattered across the French lower leagues is brutal enough without a complete loss of income and a deadly pandemic that effectively confines them to whatever basic accommodation they have, thousands of miles from all that is familiar and comforting.
From his base on the idyllic outskirts of Montpellier, Nadolo, in tandem with Dan Leo and the outstanding Pacific Rugby Players Welfare organisation, reaches out to them. He offers a word of advice here, a pair of boots there; a sage voice or a kind ear. Recently, the need has been for financial as well as emotional support, and Nadolo has delivered every time.
WATCH: Nadolo explores the life and career of Fijian rugby legend Nemani Nadolo
The country has been in a state of coronavirus-enforced lockdown for over a week now. The galactico wing has taken a pay cut at Montpellier, has a heavily pregnant wife, a teenage brother in the club espoirs and two ravenous Rottweillers at home. The weekly food shop regularly pushes 500 Euros, but still he is willing to reach into his pocket for his bosos, usos and tokos.
“It’s frustrating. From what we hear, clubs under ProD2 are not paying their players,” Nadolo says. “At the moment, it’s just communicating with the boys until we can do something. I’ve just been speaking to a few Fijian guys lower down the leagues and just seeing how they are, and if there’s any way I can help. We’re all here to help, and they have it tougher than us guys playing at the top.
“To have this going on and being away from your family, this is going to cause a lot of mental health problems. Every now and again I do help out with money. I don’t really talk about it but I’ve just reached out again and done the same thing and if anyone needs anything I’m here to help.
“I’m not saying that I’m a millionaire, but I can understand their situation, I’ve obviously got my hands full with my pregnant wife, and I’m sure a few hundred Euros will go a long way to helping some of those boys. It’s who we are, it’s in our DNA. If you can help, then do it. That’s just normal for us Fijians.
“I could sit here for hours and talk about all the good things I’ve done to help other people, but that’s not something I do. Even just talking to you about it, I get a bit flustered. But there are a lot of the older Island boys just making sure that they’re looking after their own over here.”
Nadolo has charted these fraught waters before, of course, a troubled young Fijian alone on the other side of the globe with the weight of the world on his meaty shoulders. At 23, he was playing for Exeter Chiefs, the money he earned putting food on the table for his mother and kid siblings back in Queensland.
He drank too much, partied too hard, desperate to escape the blackness that seemed to envelop him like a giant, cloying spider web. He knows now that he was likely suffering from depression. Eventually, he got done for drink-driving and returned to Australia ready to pack rugby in altogether and take up a job in the tin and copper mines of Queensland.
Day 3 lockdown… at leas the suns out ? pic.twitter.com/cBtQ5Pz0Iz
— nemzy (@nemani_nadolo) March 19, 2020
“I’ve learned from that time and it’s shaped me into who I am today,” he says. “I was in a dark place. My now-wife was living in Australia, as were all of my family. That’s no excuse to drink and drive – that was a stupid decision that I made and I’ve got to live with it.
“At the time I was going to head back and give up the game. I would have gone straight to the mines up in North Queensland. You’ve got to do a few tickets to get up there and I’d already started and I had an opportunity to go and work there.
“My mum said to give rugby one more crack and see how you go, and I got an opportunity to play in Japan. Thankfully, I didn’t give rugby up, and my wife and I went across. The game has brought me to here and I’ve made a name for myself.”
Rugby took Nadolo from Japan to Christchurch, where he burned up Super Rugby and became one of the world’s deadliest attackers, then to Montpellier, where he has been since 2016 and burnished his highlights reel with more frightening rampages. He captained his country at the 2015 World Cup and soon, although nobody can quite say when, he will be a Leicester Tiger.
?.. ok enough now pic.twitter.com/ALLaRmdkH0
— nemzy (@nemani_nadolo) March 14, 2020
Nadolo is to join the storied English titans on a two-year deal from next season, whenever the pandemic eases and sport, as trivial as it seems right now, can resume. Injuries have felled him these past few seasons and already, there are those in a ferociously staunch Tigers fan-base loudly complaining that he is a spent force.
“From what I’ve heard, their fans can be very straight and very blunt, and I just read a few of them saying on social media, ‘Oh, he’s too old, waste of money, why are they bringing someone that’s past his best to the club?’ I haven’t even started yet and they’re saying stuff about me. I’m just grateful I’m 32, not 22 – if I’d have heard or read this when I was 10 years younger, then I probably would have been offended.
“But I’ve heard it all before. It just gives you extra motivation to be like, ok, obviously not everyone is happy that you’re there, but you can’t get everyone to like you. If you play good rugby and score tries, they’ll be happy and you’ll earn respect.”
Leicester are something of a fallen giant; a team of wonderful players that has hopelessly lost its way, floundering incongruously at the foot of the Premiership. The hope is that Nadolo’s arrival can help haul them up again. Imagine 130KG of Fijian beef playing outside the immense Manu Tuilagi, with Telusa Veainu and Jonny May fizzing up the flanks, George Ford pulling the strings and Jordan Taufua, Nadolo’s old pal from the Crusaders, thundering about like a human torpedo.
“I was messaging Manu the whole time the negotiations were going and hearing how excited he was to play next to me – that’s when it hit home that I’ll be playing with world-class players.
“My first and foremost is just to make a good impression for the club and pay my dues back to them for showing faith in me. I could sit here and tell you, ‘Look, I’m coming here to win a championship’ – nah. I’m there to give my best to the club and hopefully we can create something special. They’re a great team; they’re just not doing well just now for whatever reason. I just want to get some good-quality game time and make the most of my time there, and if we can win some games along the way, that’d be awesome.”
Nadolo is a big man with a big heart and big ambitions. He has been flogging himself on the wattbike, the rower and the treadmill in isolation. When rugby returns, he will be ready.
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