One of rugby’s early global superstars, Rupeni Caucaunibuca has opened up about his heartbreaking journey through professional rugby, which took him from a remote Fiji village to the bright lights of Eden Park within a year before leaving him bankrupt and back in his village after a career in France.
In a short documentary Oceans Apart narrated by Dan Leo of the Pacific Rugby Players’ Welfare organisation, the story of Rupeni’s rapid rise at the dawn of professionalism rugby highlights the pitfalls for Pacific players who make it big overseas but aren’t equipped or necessarily have the support to deal with the change and the expectations put on them.
When he arrived in New Zealand he did not speak a word of English.
“No-one taught me when I started.
“Straight from my village, I ended up a big rugby star. In one year, from my village to Suva, Suva to the Fiji team, and then New Zealand, in one year. No-one taught me to do this or do that.
The contrast of village life to the demands of life as a professional player, in addition to adjusting to cultural differences, can be an overwhelming change for a person. Life in the village is about communal living, with only the basics but without the stresses that come with a life in the city.
“Because I grew up in the village. In school, I didn’t like school. I used to run away. Because I know I’m not good at school, I’m only good at rugby.
“But in the village, when you don’t have money, you can still live. You can borrow from your neighbours, everything too is there, you don’t need to buy anything. You just plant and farm. Fishing, you don’t need to buy, you just go diving.
Rupeni’s talent was undeniable as he shocked audiences with dazzling runs for Northland, before signing a contract with the Blues.
During his stint in France, he struggled to adapt to the culture where he was forced to speak French and a number of unexplained absences put him at odds with the club which lead to a contract termination in 2010.
“My life is always like that. It’s normal for me. But for a professional, it’s no good,” he says of his absences which involved trips back home.
Visits back to his family in the village would take three-days of travel, being in a remote part of Fiji. The village is 15km from the main road alone, making contact with the outside world a near impossibility. Trips back to his family pulled at the heartstrings and often resulted in returning back to France late.
“You know living in the village with your friends, your relatives, it sometimes made me… I didn’t want to go back.
Looking back now, he wishes he had handled things differently, describing his behaviour as ‘wrong’.
“When I stand on the other side, this side, and look at myself, I think it’s wrong. I’m running around, hiding from these guys, hiding from the club, and that is not good. I am not allowed to do that.
He says his paychecks in France gave him $1,000 per day but he says he used it for ‘nothing’.
“But I just used it for nothing. I spent it on drinking and helping people.
“I regret it. I should have kept a few hundred thousand for after rugby. But it’s too late, I’ve already spent it all, for nothing.
Rupeni hopes the next generation will learn from his experiences and if they want to have a good life after rugby, have to be more responsible with the money. He hopes that the older Pacific players that have been through it will talk to the younger players, not leaving it to ‘middle men’.
With around 20% of the professional playing ranks made up of Pacific Islanders, Pacific Rugby Players’ Welfare is calling for more from governing bodies to take their welfare seriously to ensure a better future for their families.
Watch the full documentary below and find out more information from PRPW here.
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