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'Life inside is different': The lessons Fiji star learned working in prison

By PA
Levani Botia of Fiji applauds the fans at full-time following the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between Australia and Fiji at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard on September 17, 2023 in Saint-Etienne, France. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Fiji star Levani Botia recalls his days as a prison officer if he ever feels that life on the rugby field is becoming tough.

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Botia has the striking distinction of playing both centre and flanker on the Test stage, but it is from the number seven jersey where he will be looking to inflict maximum damage on England in Sunday’s World Cup quarter-final.

The 34-year-old nicknamed ‘La Machine’ left school early, moved to the capital Suva and it was while working for the prison service and playing for the Wardens Sevens team that he was spotted by Fiji great Waisale Serevi, paving the way for his national call-up.

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It was as an unknown that he joined La Rochelle in 2014 and his rise to prominence mirrors that of the Top 14 club, who have emerged from the second tier of French rugby to become two-time European champions.

Now playing at his third World Cup with the aim of helping Fiji make a maiden appearance in the semi-finals, he retains a sense of perspective knowing where his story began.

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“Working in the prison is one of my memories, it’s something that helps me on the rugby field,” Botia said.

“When things are hard, I think about where I started. Life inside is different. Sometimes it encourages me because it was difficult.

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“You’re dealing with the people who have done something wrong, breaking the rules, the law. So it’s not easy when you are inside there. But I stayed there and liked it as well.

“Rugby took me somewhere I didn’t expect to be. I didn’t expect to be working in a prison. It was not my call.

“But I played a game and the coach of the warden team found me a small club to play for and they invited me to go and play sevens.

“I worked every day, to try to find the right path for me. Luckily, I got a contract to play in France. That was part of my dream when I was a kid.

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“I saw experienced players like Rupeni Caucaunibuca and Vilimoni Delasau who became big names around the world and in France as well.

“They gave me a good example for the future challenge to come over and play in France.

“I expected to come over for a medical joker, just for three months. When I came it was almost the end of the season, five games left.

“So I decided to leave the prison. I had to leave because I had the opportunity and I was excited to take it.”

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Botia was brought up in the interior of Viti Levu – “I’m from the bush, from the mountains” – and knows from his early memories of watching Fiji play that his team will be carrying the expectations of a nation when they clash with England.

“When I was a kid we had no electricity but we had a generator. So we took it to the mountain where we tried to find a reception to watch the TV,” Botia said.

“If you ask any Fijian playing rugby now or young kids back at home, everyone loves rugby. When we are brought up it’s something that’s running through our blood.

“We love rugby at school when we were kids. Back at home we’d sometimes try to play but didn’t have a rugby ball. So we’d use anything – empty bottles, some of us used a coconut or something, just to play rugby.”

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