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Nemani Nadolo: 'Now I cut grass, do gardens, cut hedges for a living'

By Liam Heagney
Nemani Nadolo at the Hong Kong 10s with Ashbury Tropics (Photo by Liam Heagney)

Whatever happened to Nemani Nadolo? The legendary Fijian winger hung up his boots last year, taking to social media in April 2023 to announce that he would be retiring at the end of the Super Rugby Pacific season after a globetrotting five-country, 15-year career.

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At the time he was four games into his second stint at the New South Wales Waratahs having returned to Australia following a Gallagher Premiership title win with Steve Borthwick’s Leicester. And now? It was at the Hong Kong 10s the other week when RugbyPass caught up with the 36-year-old who had pitched up in the Far East with a smile on his face.

The place was once the making of him, his exploits 11 years ago piquing the interest of the Crusaders. He was in his 20s, trucking away in Japan after troubled stints in France and England when he previously featured at the invitational tournament, scoring the title-winning try with a length-of-field sprint.

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RUGBYPASS INSIDERS | NADOLO – A RugbyPass Originals Documentary

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RUGBYPASS INSIDERS | NADOLO – A RugbyPass Originals Documentary

That impact hadn’t been forgotten. It was even mentioned over the Happy Valley stadium PA system on April 3 when Nadolo appeared off the Ashbury Tropics bench to score a pick-and-go about a minute after his first involvement was packing down in a scrum.

“I saw some of the London Scottish old boys and they reminded me,” chuckled Nadolo. “It was a Wednesday night, they were winning and then I scored the winning try running 80 metres. I don’t have 80 metres or the speed that I had before but I came here early in my career when I was unheard of sort – and after this tournament, I went on to play for the Crusaders.

“You come back now and they are like, ‘You played here’. It’s a great tournament that unearths a lot of great talent. We don’t know it yet but there are future All Blacks, future Wallabies and England internationals playing this tournament.

“It’s funny, I came here at the start of my career and now I’m at the end with a lot of guys who are aspiring and it’s just great to see. I’ve got nothing to prove, I’m just here to fill in the numbers for our team. I’m not the fittest, but hey, you get out there and have a dig. It’s good fun.”

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Until you get beaten. The Tropics were sent packing at the semi-final stage on the Thursday shortly after Nadolo had spent 30 revealing minutes with RugbyPass talking about his transition out of rugby and reflecting on the stellar career he had.

His initial post-retirement foray in Sydney was tough but he has since bought his own business, is now coaching, playing rugby socially, and also doing some commentary on the Fijian Drua. Content? You bet!

“Two weeks after I retired I went straight into a job, I became a HR manager for a trucking company. Did that for nine months. Experience was awesome but it wasn’t me. The long hours didn’t help. I promised my wife when I retired from rugby I wouldn’t spend so many hours away.

“There were some good elements, some bad. I focused too much on my job and neglected a lot of things. I struggled. Put other things, other people first before me. It got to nine months and I was just probably mentally burnt out.

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“So I stopped that and bought a landscaping, lawn mowing business in Sydney (franchise holder for Jim’s Mowing). Now I go and cut grass and do gardens and cut hedges for a living, which is good because it allows me to still be involved in the game on some sort of level. For nine months I didn’t do any rugby or anything but I’m now doing a bit of coaching for a colts team in my local club, Northern Suburbs.

“The game has given me a lot playing for 15 years and one passion I have is helping the next generation come through. I’m down at Norths helping the outside backs and the back three, trying to teach them a few things I learned along my way as a winger. I play a bit of rugby as well, play fourth grade there which keeps the body moving. Really enjoying it. And I’m now starting to reflect a lot on the career that I had and it has been rewarding.

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A post shared by Nemani Nadolo (@nemani_nadolo)

“I’m here at the Hong Kong 10s, doing a bit of coaching, something I always wanted to do, doing a bit of commentary. Look, coaching, I’d love to see how far it goes but I’d love to get into the media world and have a really good crack at that.

“One thing that really motivates me is that being a South Sea Islander, we don’t have too many commentators or guys involved in the media. Getting involved in that media world, I could be an example for younger guys coming through to aspire to get involved in the media game.”

How does the commentary booth compare to the pitch? “The heart rate is up but it’s different. It’s not physical but you have got to think on the spot. It’s just a different dynamic of pressure but it’s like anything else, you do your homework, practice every day and it gets better. Wherever I can get some commentating, media work, I usually put my hand up. It’s pretty cool.”

Cool too are Nadolo’s career recollections and his advice for would-be professional players is salient. “Just be patient. The biggest thing for me was patience. I played in a lot of countries, played in some amazing competitions, but it didn’t come easy, it didn’t come quick. A few times I probably wanted to give up the game.

“What I would tell a young guy is just continue to hone your craft and be patient, play in competitions like this [HK10s]. I remember at the start of my career I tried to play in every invitation competition there was because in rugby, particularly in a professional sport, you don’t know who is watching, so that’s the mentality I had. I had to wait two years to play my first professional game, but 15 years later I’d like to think I had a pretty good career.”

Nadolo sure did. When was he in his prime, though, the standout period where the wrecking ball felt he was at his most destructive best? “I wouldn’t put it to one season. Probably 2014 to 2017, I came to my peak, strung a lot of good games. That’s where I found the confidence to believe in myself as a player because I was always being told, ‘You are too big to be playing the position you’re playing, you don’t have what it takes to make it’.

“It’s funny because I played for 15 years and at the start of my career I was told I was too big to play the game. Again, going back to what I said, just be patient, and if you truly believe in yourself and your talent, one day you are going to get picked up.

“It was pretty hard at the time. I probably hated a lot of coaches but I’ve moved on. Being told you are not good enough or that you don’t have what it takes to make it was my driving factor. I played with a chip on my shoulder internally, if you tell me I can’t do it I’ll prove you wrong sort of thing, and I probably took that right through my career.

“All it took was a coach or an organisation to believe in what you have got and it’s probably when I went to the Crusaders in New Zealand, they said, ‘We know you’re not going to be the quickest, we know you’re not going to be the fittest but you’re the strongest and you’re quick for your size’. That, for me, was all it took.

“They [Todd Blackadder and co] showed faith in me and that’s where my career took off, playing alongside the likes of Dan Carter, (Richie) McCaw and having that confidence they instilled in me. That’s what it was.

“I always say rugby is a one-man’s opinion. If you go to one club and one man says you’re not good enough, one man at another club would say the opposite. I played in Australia and was told I wasn’t good enough and then found myself four, five years later playing in New Zealand where I thought it was impossible to ever do. That’s where it all started.

“That’s the thing about New Zealand, the one thing I love about the rugby there is they cater to all shapes and sizes. The clubs I was in (before) probably didn’t know how to handle a big outside back at the time. It’s just going to a place where you feel appreciated and see the damage that can be done to the opposition, the confidence that gets instilled when you have got a club or an organisation that has faith in you.”

Nadolo’s powerful reputation persists in Christchurch. “I think I have still got the bench press record at the Crusaders,” he beamed. “I went over a few years ago and they had a board up. It was maybe 180 bench, squat maybe 200. That’s probably the best I did.

“Funny enough towards the end of my career when I was playing at Leicester and Montpellier, particularly at Leicester with Steve Borthwick – great man, great coach, I’m happy for him what he has done at England – I remember there would be times I wouldn’t be doing weights anymore and he would be, ‘Just get yourself ready for Saturday’.

“I spent most of the end of my career sitting on a Wattbike. Probably the last year and a half of my career I didn’t do any weights, just sat on a bike and got my body right for the weekend.”

Any other metrics Nadolo would care to mention? “I think I did 4.9 (seconds) over 40 metres; 4.9 and I was 130kilos. I was a big boy. It’s probably not bad for a big guy because a lot of the guys run 4.4s and 4.3s. That’s probably the quickest I did over 40.”

His Fiji Test career is also referenced. “I played 31 Test matches over 14 years. It wasn’t until the last two years they were starting to play, six, seven, eight Test matches. There were times when some years we played three or four Test matches and the rest were against Barbarians or development teams.

“Fiji have come a long way. To play 50 games was the equivalent of 100 games for Fiji and the islands. We don’t have the luxury of playing 15 Tests a season. So to play 31 Tests in 14 years, three of those years I didn’t get picked, for me it’s a huge achievement and I got to represent Fiji at a World Cup.

“It’s so good to go back. I was there this year when I did some commentary. It was humbling for me that people came up and said I had a great career. I’m proud, I wouldn’t change a thing. I grew up in Australia, played Australian U20s but opportunities didn’t arise and you have just got to go to the next job and the next opportunity.

“I always have a thing just keep knocking, someone will open the door one day and a lot of clubs did and I had a really, really fun time. I was a backpacker for 15 years and just got paid for it because I travelled the world. Every time I changed clubs I changed countries. Not many people can say they played at all these clubs in all these countries and enjoyed the career that I had.

“Look, I would have liked to have played in front of my family more… I don’t think my siblings watched any of my games, but other than that I got to travel the world for free. People are paying to go to these countries. I was there!

“We travelled a lot and towards the end of my career, we also had a baby boy. It was a blessing in disguise I had a family at the end of my career. Now I’m a father and life is a bit different. It’s not as chaotic as it used to be but I’m still transitioning.

“I don’t think there is a time limit on transitioning from retirement as a professional athlete. It’s challenging. Don’t get me wrong, it’s hard, but with a good support base and good people around you, it makes it a lot easier.

“I didn’t get a chance to reflect on my career when I retired. Like I said, I went straight into an office job. It’s not until I did my own thing in terms of starting my own business that I got to be able to get involved in rugby again and now I’m sort of reflecting on the career that I had. I haven’t watched any games (I played) but you just come down here and people say hello, ask for a photo and stuff – it’s really humbling.”

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D
Diarmid 11 hours ago
Players and referees must cut out worrying trend in rugby – Andy Goode

The guy had just beasted himself in a scrum and the blood hadn't yet returned to his head when he was pushed into a team mate. He took his weight off his left foot precisely at the moment he was shoved and dropped to the floor when seemingly trying to avoid stepping on Hyron Andrews’ foot. I don't think he was trying to milk a penalty, I think he was knackered but still switched on enough to avoid planting 120kgs on the dorsum of his second row’s foot. To effectively “police” such incidents with a (noble) view to eradicating play acting in rugby, yet more video would need to be reviewed in real time, which is not in the interest of the game as a sporting spectacle. I would far rather see Farrell penalised for interfering with the refereeing of the game. Perhaps he was right to be frustrated, he was much closer to the action than the only camera angle I've seen, however his vocal objection to Rodd’s falling over doesn't legitimately fall into the captain's role as the mouthpiece of his team - he should have kept his frustration to himself, that's one of the pillars of rugby union. I appreciate that he was within his rights to communicate with the referee as captain but he didn't do this, he moaned and attempted to sway the decision by directing his complaint to the player rather than the ref. Rugby needs to look closely at the message it wants to send to young players and amateur grassroots rugby. The best way to do this would be to apply the laws as they are written and edit them where the written laws no longer apply. If this means deleting laws such as ‘the put in to the scrum must be straight”, so be it. Likewise, if it is no longer necessary to respect the referee’s decision without questioning it or pre-emptively attempting to sway it (including by diving or by shouting and gesticulating) then this behaviour should be embraced (and commercialised). Otherwise any reference to respecting the referee should be deleted from the laws. You have to start somewhere to maintain the values of rugby and the best place to start would be giving a penalty and a warning against the offending player, followed by a yellow card the next time. People like Farrell would rapidly learn to keep quiet and let their skills do the talking.

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