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FEATURE Albert Tuisue: 'I had to help with nine post-mortems, touching the organs'

Albert Tuisue: 'I had to help with nine post-mortems, touching the organs'
7 months ago

On the idyllic Fijian island of Kadavu, schoolchildren would hear the rumbling engines of a jet overhead and scuttle outside to gaze up at the sky.

Albert Tuisue was fascinated by planes. Where they had been and, more importantly, where they were going.

“Is that one flying to Australia? New Zealand? America?” he would ask the other kids. “One day, I will be on that plane, wherever it is going.”

It wasn’t that Tuisue ached to escape the beaches and beauty of home. It was his burning desire to make a career from rugby, to provide for his family, and in time, to pull on the storied white jersey of his country that compelled him to follow the criss-crossed streams up above.

Tuisue helped Fiji reach a Rugby World Cup quarter-final for the first time since 2007 (Photo by Pauline Ballet – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Back then, the enormous Gloucester flanker spent most of his free time playing the game. Rugby boots and balls were too expensive, so the youngsters ran barefoot over the sand and through the foam clutching coconuts. There was simplicity and happiness in his upbringing, but there was hardship, too, no doubt. Kadavu has little infrastructure and only around 10,000 inhabitants.

“Even when we got to high school, when you ask your father to buy a rugby ball, he can’t afford it,” Tuisue tells RugbyPass. “My childhood was really tough. Growing up on the island, everything is so difficult.

“We grow our own food. We go diving and fishing whenever we can. We plant our own crops, kava and cassava, which is a root crop. We have nothing to worry about because we plant our own food, we raise our own pigs and chickens.

I was a rough police officer! We did a bit of  patrol on the streets, drug operations, escorting prisoners to the courthouse.

“Living in the city you have to worry about everything. In the islands, no. We have a waterfall, we’d go in on Sunday after lunch and swim, relax and sing. Every time I am in Fiji, I always go straight to the island. I miss the island life, the coconuts, everything, it’s really sweet.

“Rugby was like a call to us. That childhood gave me more motivation to become a professional player, to play for Fiji one day.”

There was no straightforward path from island serenity to elite rugby. Tuisue moved to Taveuni, the third-largest island in the Fijian archipelago, where the national team began their World Cup camp immersed in the villages this summer. He would walk an hour to rugby training and an hour home again.

For more than three years, he worked as a police officer, burnishing his reputation as a talented player and a copper not to be trifled with. Tuisue is a gentle soul but at 6ft 2ins and 115KG, his stint on the beat can only have been a spectacularly poor time to be a Taveuni wrong ‘un.

“When I went back to Taveuni this year, they knew me very well,” he laughs. “I was a rough police officer! We did a bit of  patrol on the streets, drug operations, escorting prisoners to the courthouse. I did some interviews with suspects.

Tuisue won the 2018 NRC with the Fijian Drua before their ascent to Super Rugby (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

“There were some scary things. You had to take dead bodies to the post-mortem. You had to be there, helping with the organs, touching things. I’ve done that nine times. The first time, I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep.”

Eventually, the dream began to crystallise. His first contract appeared; modest but precious. He was signed to play in Australia’s famous Shute Shield and now-defunct NRC. He moved to Sydney and worked construction jobs to augment his semi-professional income.

When the Fijian Drua were turned loose in the NRC, Tuisue came alive. He emerged as a ball-carrying juggernaut, propelling the Drua to the 2018 title, earning the man of the match award in the final, and the sweet honour of an international debut.

Around then, Gloucester supremo George Skivington was scouring the globe for a back-row with Tuisue’s arsenal. He sought more ballast and snarl in his London Irish pack, targeting an immediate return to the Premiership.

“I had a call with Les Kiss and George, I spoke to my agent and said, ‘okay, I’m ready’,” Tuisue recalls. “But you had to have three caps before you could enter the UK. I only had one. I got another two in November 2018 when we played against Scotland and then beat France in France. Straight after that game, I came over to London Irish.

The phone network was down for two weeks and I never reached them, I only watched the news. I didn’t know if they were alive or not.

“The first week of training it was snowing. In Fiji when it rains heavily the coach calls training off. I thought maybe there would be no training, with the snow everywhere, but the coaches said ‘no, we are training today’. I was so freezing, so freezing. Even my toenails were hurting.

“From Fiji to semi-pro in Australia, then I became a professional player. The club, the atmosphere, the crowd, it’s so different.”

Life in England was a jolt; the climate, the lifestyle, the rigours of a professional environment. And the sheer distance between Tuisue and home. His father died in the throes of the pandemic and travel regulations prevented Tuisue from attending the funeral. A few months earlier, a category-five cyclone struck Fiji, laying waste to Kadavu. For several weeks, Tuisue fretted over television bulletins and tried in vain to contact his parents.

“Last week when we went up to Sale and they said, ‘there’s a storm coming’, I told my friend, ‘you have to experience a cyclone’. When it’s a category four or five, you expect nothing to be left. That’s what happened in 2020. My father hid under the porch while the cyclone uprooted everything.

“The phone network was down for two weeks and I never reached them, I only watched the news. I didn’t know if they were alive or not.

“I’ve built a cyclone-proof, three-bedroom house in the village for my mum. The cyclone season comes every year – it is cyclone season right now in Fiji. We are ready.”

Tuisue was racially abused on social media in 2021 but chose not to take the perpetrator to court (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)

And then, in 2021, there was the horrific racist message Tuisue received on Instagram – sent, appallingly, by an aspiring rugby player. He didn’t think much of it at first – he jokes now about how such abuse might be handled back home – but when he showed the message to an aghast team-mate, the police were contacted.

“I was a bit angry because the guy was talking about my mum – he doesn’t know me, doesn’t know my mum. If this was in Fiji and I was a police officer, I would just go straight to his house…

“I learned racism was a really big issue here. I saw the guy’s profile and he was a young player. I didn’t want to ruin his career if he wanted to be a professional. The police came to my house and asked if I wanted to press charges. I said ‘nah, just give him a last warning’. I’m not that kind of person. I want to forgive.”

When Skivington got the Gloucester job, he kept an eye on Tuisue’s contractual situation. Last year, he made his move.

“London Irish didn’t want to let me go, but I wanted to change club, get into a new environment and get into the countryside. Living in London is so expensive. Here it’s cheaper and life is easier.

“As soon as I got the ball, they were calling my name. I really appreciate that. I love the crowd and the people.”

We need more. Fiji should be a Tier One nation now.

The Shed clearly adores their Fijian colossus, just as the rugby world marvelled at the feats of Tuisue’s brothers in France. In reaching the quarter-finals, and giving England palpitations in the last eight, Fiji won yet more admirers.

“It was emotional because my mum could never watch any of my World Cup games because the TV signal is not good enough. The next morning, she’d be asking who won. What we achieved this year is history, for me, the family and the Fijian people.

“We are playing for the young generation. They will see what we achieved and they will try to bring the cup back home. Maybe in the next four years, or the next twenty years. One day.”

Tuisue longs for more opportunities against the sharks of the Test game. If, as expected, Fiji are included in the top tier of the impending ‘Nations Championship’, they will get a crack at the big dogs more often.

“If they can bring us a lot of Test matches, Tier One not Tier Two,” Tuisue says. “When we play against Tier One, we bring our level to Tier One level. In the World Cup, we played against Australia, Wales, England, we brought our level to the same as theirs. When we play against Tier One, woah… the preparation, mentality, physicality we bring. But when we play against Tier Two, we bring our level back down.

Tuisue Gloucester ban
Tuisue has started two games for Gloucester since returning from the Rugby World Cup (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

“We didn’t play well against Georgia and Portugal, they beat us everywhere because we think we are Tier Two.

“We want more than only three Tests on a European tour. We need more. Fiji should be a Tier One nation now. We showed the world what we can do.”

If Fiji made their point, Gloucester are striving to prove theirs. A pillar of English rugby, they have, astonishingly, never won the Premiership. There have been a few cups along the way, but nothing tangible since 2015. Gloucester have made the league semi-finals once since 2011 and finished in the top half of the table three times since then. They tore into the new season with back-to-back wins, but have fallen to successive losses against last year’s finalists, Saracens and Sale.

Now celebrating their 150th anniversary, the Cherry and Whites crave the silverware their status demands and their supporters have waited an age to embrace. Friday night’s West Country showdown with Bath will have Kingsholm hungry and shuddering.

I became a man, I became a father. It’s unbelievable from where I started.

“I will do my thing, the carrying,” Tuisue says. “We have been known as a team with the most maul tries and we never scored a maul try in the last two games. We want to get back to that. We are ready. We know this will be a physical game because we both lost last week and we will fight to the death.”

What would that boy on Kadavu island make of all this, dashing from his classroom to watch the skies, dreaming of adventure and travel and all the feats Tuisue has now turned to reality?

“From the little boy, I became a man, I became a father. It’s unbelievable from where I started.

“I look back at where I’ve reached now, the sacrifices I’ve made, the never-give-up attitude. I thank my family and I thank God for never leaving me alone.

“It happened. My belief and faith worked. The dream came true.”

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