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Ratu Tagive's harrowing rugby journey

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'Mate, has your manager not spoken to you? We've terminated your contract' - the harrowing rugby journey of Ratu Tagive

Ratu Tagive walked into the office of the Adina Hotel in Canberra, picked up the phone to his mother and began to weep. This was a call that he had dreaded for years, an ultimatum he had resisted making until the strain grew too much to bear.

No longer could Tagive send home his modest porter’s wage and find she had ploughed the lot into poker machines. No more could he put his rugby career on hold while landlords hounded him for swelling rent arrears and his Fijian family tiptoed around the obvious gambling addiction of their matriarch. Tagive realised with horror how the desperate situation had begun to sour his relationship with doting girlfriend Victoria. It was a monumental load for a 19-year-old to shoulder. In every sense, he was spent.

“How do you say to your mum, ‘We’ve got to kick you guys out of the house’?” asks the Glasgow wing.
“I was sending money back home, as was my elder brother Peni [a rising NRL star who had taken up an American football scholarship in Texas], and it just wasn’t going where it was intended to. It was incredibly frustrating.

“It got to the point where we were not helping the situation, we were enabling it. It was a very teary and emotional call but it had to be made. I told her I couldn’t do it anymore.”

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The tale is shocking, but the prelude crueller still. One of nine siblings born to Fijian parents, Tagive grew up in Sydney, where he had been studying a joint degree he hated while playing rugby league for Wests Tigers. Then he got jettisoned in the most brutal fashion. It became clear that sport would not pay the mounting bills, so he gathered his things and walked out on the game without uttering a word to a soul.

“I had a shocking season in my first pro year with the Tigers and I’d not spoken to anyone at the time. I was keen to put that bad season behind me and focus on the next season,” he says.

“I’d turned up to the first day of pre-season and everyone’s having all their training kit handed out. My kit wasn’t there.

Ratu Tagive

Ratu Tagive prepares for a drill during an Australian Sevens training session at the Sydney Academy of Sport in 2016 (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

“Our team manager called me up into the office and was like, ‘Mate, has your manager not spoken to you?’ I asked him what was going on. ‘Mate, we’ve terminated your contract.’

“Looking back, I did not realise how big a deal something like that was to deal with at such a young age, having everything that was going on at home, studies, so much pressure on your shoulders.

“I went back to the Canterbury Bulldogs where I was playing U20s, looking for a lifeline. I played for next to nothing. I didn’t speak to anyone; I didn’t know who to speak to.

“I ended up literally just walking out. I just went AWOL. I packed up my stuff, found a job down in Canberra as a hotel porter, minimum wage.”

A professional career seemed light years away when keeping the lights on and the wolf from the door had driven him to the brink of ruin, but from the trembling call home came the first steps towards salvation.

“It was almost like addressing the elephant in the room for the first time,” Tagive says. “Pacific Islanders are such happy people but a lot of these things are quite taboo – you don’t address or speak about them.

“The thing that got me the most was that my mum wasn’t angry about it. It was almost like a relief for her. She’d been keeping up this charade and this was actually the first constructive thing we needed to do to rebuild the family.

“I sat there on the phone crying. She knew it had to be done. All these years later, it was the best thing for everyone involved.

“There are still a lot of fragments, relationships aren’t the same, but family is always family. It’s testament to how well our parents brought us up with those cultural aspects. Dad and mum always said, ‘Love the person but hate their ways’.”

With his mother at last getting the help she needed, Tagive could revive the rugby career he had been forced to neglect. Victoria embarked on something of a publicity campaign, throwing together a showreel, blitzing social media and churning out speculative emails.

Somehow, the footage reached the inbox of Stephen Larkham, the imperious former Wallaby who was coaching the Brumbies. In January 2016, Tagive was invited to train with the franchise and all of their Australian superstars. He had never before played rugby union. As he floundered around the paddock chasing some of the game’s leading lights, he wondered if he would ever belong.

“I felt like a baby trying to learn to walk,” he says. “You’re like the awkward baby giraffe doing things wrong.

“Mentally it’s tough to be like, s**t, these guys are here being paid a lot of money and I’m just trying to learn the game and I’m getting in the way at times. It was challenging. It could get quite frustrating as well, just wanting to contribute but not being at that level just yet.

“I explained to Dave [Rennie, Glasgow Warriors coach], it’s almost like learning how to drive a manual car for the first time, you’ve got to shift the stick, indicate and you’ve got to think about these things. You see the boys that have been doing it all their lives, Matt Toomua, Henry Speight, Christian Lealiifano, not even thinking, just instinct. You get to the point when you’re driving and it’s all instinct.

“Dave sort of smiled and said that once you get to the point where you’re not really thinking about stuff, that’s where athletes operate at their best. I just felt like I was getting in the way.”

Although he never got to wear the Brumbies jersey, it was a transformative season. Tagive learned how to hold his own with the giants. He put in the hard yards with Eastern Suburbs in the Shute Shield where he met a man who would inadvertently shape the course of his career.

Scotland Club XV prop Steven Findlay was spending the year in Australia. By chance, he played alongside Tagive, and it was he who shared another highlights package which was spotted, crucially, by Gav Vaughan, the analyst, scout and all-round rugby geek who is responsible for many of Scottish Rugby’s most impressive captures.

“Literally, had Steven not sent that on, we wouldn’t be here all these years later,” Tagive says.
The wing arrived in Glasgow almost exactly three years ago. In the time since, he has made just eight appearances, hamstrung by his lack of rugby nous, Pro14 restrictions on foreign players and an awful Achilles injury.

When he replaced Gregor Townsend in 2017, Rennie felt the Fijian wasn’t sharp enough with his hands or venomous enough with his frame. No sense in fielding a 6ft 3in lump of a winger who struggled to make the most of his bulk.

“Dave prides the team on being very skilful, anyone must be able to make the pass or shift the ball,” Tagive says.

“He spoke to me in the one-on-ones at the end of last season and said there were times they considered picking me but my skillset wasn’t up to where they wanted it so they didn’t go with me. That’s fair enough and that’s the criticism you need to get to where you want to be.

“The other thing was that I’m a big outside back and to bring that point of difference into the game, to use that size, bring that raw aggression and hunger to run over the top of anyone, or in defence to be aggressive in people’s faces. That’s my point of difference and they needed to see it in training and games.”

He is showing that brutality and guile now, finally earning his place in the Warriors XV, scoring in two of his last three outings and making his European Champions Cup debut in the bruising win over Sale Sharks. Earlier this year, he proposed to Victoria in the idyllic surrounds of an Edinburgh sculpture park and the pair long to start a family in years to come.

The meagre playing time is a source of a great angst, for sure, but Tagive has conquered so much, come thundering triumphant out of such gross adversity, that the blows he takes now feel like feathers, not fists.

“Nothing for me is going to ever be as gut-wrenching as walking into the office at the age of 19 with my team manager to be told, ‘Mate, we’ve terminated your contract’,” he says. “That’s how I see it – in perspective, holistically.

“It’s almost like a crazy blessing in disguise, everything that you’ve been through to give you the mental strength to face a lot of stuff that is incredibly frustrating but pales in comparison to what you have overcome.”

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'Mate, has your manager not spoken to you? We've terminated your contract' - the harrowing rugby journey of Ratu Tagive