The 'French product' leading Fiji's cause
INTERVIEW: When Fiji take on England in the World Cup quarterfinals in Marseille on Sunday, host country France will be willing them on to win.
It is not just the cross channel sporting rivalry that will be at play, but because Fiji will be led by an adopted son.
It was in France that Fiji’s Simon Raiwalui took his first steps in coaching and it is perhaps poetic that his crowning glory as a handler so far was back where it all began.
Things could get better yet for the giant-framed but softly-spoken former lock forward if his team reach the semifinals, and a potential clash with the hosts.
Raiwalui has already guided Fiji to one of their greatest World Cup results with their stunning 22-15 victory over Australia in Pool C last month that proved crucial in sending the Flying Fijians into the knock-out stages.
A month before that, Raiwalui masterminded a first ever victory over England — at Twickenham no less.
Now, Raiwalui is back in the country where his coaching journey began, and for many of those that knew him as a player and then coach in France, his success is no surprise.
Born in New Zealand and brought up in Australia, Raiwalui stayed true to his roots and represented Fiji 39 times as player.
Standing at over two metres tall and weighing more than 120 kilogrammes in his pomp, Raiwalui’s club career took him to Newport in Wales and Saracens in England before he ended it at Racing 92 in France.
“He was an incredible guy, an exemplary lock. Quiet, but he knew how to make himself understood,” Jacky Lorenzetti, the businessman president of Racing, told AFP.
“Behind his gruff and granite appearance, he was very gentle, kind. People think nice people are weak, but he wasn’t weak.”
Raiwalui’s knowledge and understanding of the game was quickly apparent.
“He was a worker, very respectful and respected by his team-mates who saw in him a certain wisdom,” said his former coach, Pierre Berbizier, who made Raiwalui his captain.
Nicknamed “Papa”, he was also like a father figure to young players from the Pacific Islands, such as Fiji-born France international Virimi Vakatawa, who arrived at Racing aged 17 in 2009.
“He was a bit like the Fijian chief, everything went through him. If there was any confusion, he was there to fix things,” said Jean-Frederic Dubois, a former teammate who remembers Raiwalui’s fondness for barbecued duck hearts.
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‘Coaching suited him’
It was at Racing that Raiwalui was given his first chance as a forwards coach by Gonzalo Quesada.
Raiwalui would subsequently follow the Argentine coach to Stade Francais, where they won the Top 14 title.
“The coaching role suited him, it was perfect for him,” said Dubois, who was by then the Stade Francais backs coach.
“He was in his element, the coach for the forwards, the breakdown and the defence.”
Raiwalui followed Quesada to Biarritz in the French second division before finally moving back to Australia and taking on the forwards coach position for the Australian national team.
In 2020 he began a new role as the Director of the High Performance academy in Fiji before taking over the reins of the Flying Fijians at the start of this year after New Zealander Vern Cotter left.
Fiji flank Vilive Miramira first came across Raiwalui in the Fijian High Performance academy.
A player with the Fijian Drua Super Rugby franchise, Miramira said Raiwalui is “a good leader”.
“He brings a lot of experience from coaching in France and that really helps a lot,” said Miramira.
Raiwalui has also impressed with his ice cool demeanour.
“You see him in matches, he never gets angry,” said Dubois.
“He knew how to get respect without raising his voice too much.”
But it is not just his calmness, it is also his human touch that has impressed others.
“Simon gave me a lot on an individual level,” said Raphael Lakafia, a back row forward who played under Raiwalui at Stade Francais.
“He was very kind to his players, with a fatherly touch.
“Beyond his abilities, he impressed me with how human characteristics.”