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The extraordinary rise of Semi Radradra: From working in a goldmine for $2 an hour to captaining Fiji

By Liam Heagney

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New Fiji captain Semi Radradra has given an extraordinary interview ahead of next Sunday’s Autumn Nations Cup match with France, recounting his humble upbringing and working for a pittance in a goldmine before going on to become a global rugby star.

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A hamstring injury sustained during Bristol’s Challenge Cup final win over Toulon last month was initially set to rule Radradra out of November action with his country. 

However, not only has the 28-year-old quickly recovered, he has been handed the captaincy by Vern Cotter ahead of Sunday’s campaign opener in Vannes, a match in which the Fijians will seek to repeat their 21-17 2018 Stade de France win over the French. 

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Radradra was a try-scorer that historic night for Fiji and he has now agreed to become skipper despite having just ten caps to his name. Interviews are a rarity with the recent Bristol signing who came to England following a stint at Bordeaux. 

However, in the lead-up to this weekend’s game at Stade de la Rabine, Radradra opened up to Midi Olympique, the bi-weekly French rugby newspaper, and his recollections of life in Fiji made for compelling reading.  

Asked to talk about his childhood, Radradra told Midi: “I come from a village called Somosomo, located on Taveuni Island. My island is said to be the ‘garden of Fiji’. There is a flower that only grows there and I’m proud to say that I am from Somosomo. 

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“Like all kids my age, I grew up passionate about rugby. I was not good at school, I was much better at farm work. I am the third of seven siblings, with four brothers and two sisters. 

“My older brother has always had health problems, so it was up to me to bring the food to the table. Secretly, I hoped to become a great rugby player. I was spotted in my village and went to play for two years for a school on the main island, two days by boat. There I played rugby, but it was not enough…”

Asked what did he mean with his ‘wasn’t enough’ remark, Radradra added: “My family needed money and farming was not enough so I went to work in the gold mines of Vatukoula, north of the main island. I was 16 or 17, and I was making two dollars an hour. We went down every morning at 7am 100 metres underground, never knowing if we were going to come up. A lot of people died down there. 

“I worked for eight months in these mines, but it marked me. I divided my days between mining and rugby, and I sent my salary to my family. It was hard, but it shaped me. A few months later, I was selected with the Fijian U20s to compete in the 2011 World Cup in Italy and my life changed.”

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The story goes that Radradra was recruited by NRL club Parramatta Eels on the basis of a photograph from that age-grade union tournament, a tale the new Fiji captain has now verified. 

“Yes, it’s true. This leader had seen a picture of me with the U20s and found my legs to be very muscular for my age. He made a bet, called me and asked if I wanted to play league. I told him that I had never played and that I had never even seen a league game.

“He said, ‘We’ll teach you’. A few hours later, I received a plane ticket that sent me off the next morning! I left Fiji without even telling my family. Once there, my agent was waiting for me with the contract. When I saw the sum, I thought of my family who lived in poverty and I signed right away, telling myself that I could help them and that I would no longer have to go down to the mine.”

All these years later, Radradra is now Fiji captain and looking to do his country proud in the Autumn Nations Cup. “Honestly, I couldn’t believe it when he [Cotter] told me. I felt the tears rise. It’s a huge honour and a privilege (to be captain). 

“I was so surprised. I have barely ten caps with this team. It happened quickly. I couldn’t refuse, but I immediately told him that I needed other guys to lead this team, to support me. We have some great guys here and I won’t do anything if I’m alone.”

Recalling the win two years ago over France, Radradra added: “I will remember it all my life. It was very special. We made history but those times are a thing of the past, it will not come back. Beating a tier one team at (their) home is very rare, but it also showed us that we can do it. We must learn from this victory. There is a saying that goes: ‘Nothing is impossible when the heart decides to win.'”

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The extraordinary rise of Semi Radradra: From working in a goldmine for $2 an hour to captaining Fiji

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