The New Zealand Universities team arrived in Fiji on Saturday and begin a whirlwind tour with their first game against Fiji National University in Nadi on Monday afternoon.

The New Zealand team then face off against defending tertiary world champs Australia on Wednesday, before heading to Suva for a clash with Fiji University of the South Pacific on Saturday. The two best teams meet in next Tuesday’s final in the capital.

There’s a healthy Canterbury-based contingent in the New Zealand squad, with Halswell stalwart and former Rockcote Canterbury Bulls rep Ken Tofilau, Northern Bulldogs halfback Zac Riley, Riccarton Knights front-rower Delane Luke and Hornby Panthers’ Jordan Campbell – brother of current Bulls star Brad – earning selection for the Pacific trip.

The team will also be bolstered by the presence of Canterbury Rugby League great Esene Faimalo, who accepted a late invitation to come on board as trainer. The former Western Samoa, New Zealand and USA international moved back to Christchurch after more than 20 years in England, taking up a job with Oranga Tamariki (Ministory for Children).

“I’ve been friends with (NZU coach) Kenny O’Brien for a while, and he asked if I’d be interested if I was available to help train the team,” Faimalo explains.

“I said, ‘oh yeah, sounds interesting – I’ll be into that’. I’ve only just come on board about two weeks ago, so I’m coming in with fresh eyes.”

After representing Western Samoa at the 1986 Pacific Cup, Faimalo made the first of five Test appearances for the Kiwis in 1988, the season he switched club allegiances from Addington to Sydenham. The robust forward spent a year in Wellington, before beginning a lengthy stay in the UK in late-1990.

Faimalo played 11 seasons with English clubs Widnes, Leeds and Salford before hanging up the boots with a short stint back at the Vikings in 2000.

He has maintained a steady involvement with rugby league coaching and training Widnes youth teams.

Faimalo’s experience is set to prove vital for the New Zealand Universities side, who will potentially play four games in nine days in sweltering heat and punishing humidity.

“It reminds me of the old days when we used to play in tournaments and it was a game every day,” Faimalo winces.

“I played for Samoa back in 1986 (in Rarotonga) and I know what it’s going to be like over there – it’s going to be pretty hot. It’s going to be about whether they can handle the conditions.”

As well as his vast rugby league knowledge, Faimalo is looking to ensure the players take the field with the same sense of pride in the black-and-white jersey as he did for the Kiwis from 1988-91.

Faimalo toured Great Britain and France with the 1989 Kiwis squad – who played 17 games on a two-month journey – and he will help guide the young NZU side on this rigorous tour.

“For anybody to represent New Zealand, it’s a big honour,” he says.

“Kenny said, ‘it will be great to have you on board, you’ve been there, done that – the pressures of being on tour, playing internationals, the pride and everything like that’.

“I said, ‘yeah, I can tell them a few stories!’ And I’ll be trying to boost their game up and push them into the right places, talk to them about certain things game-wise and get the best out of them.”

New Zealand Universities Rugby League boasts a proud tradition, winning World Cups in 1986, 1999 and 2005. But they were forced to withdraw from the 2017 tournament due to financial constraints.

This tour is a key step in their build-up to the 2021 Tertiary Students World Cup in England.


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