When Henry Speight finally pulls on the Wallabies jersey in September, Australian rugby must extend much gratitude to his late grandfather Ratu Josefa Iloilo, the former Fijian president.
“He was one of the most influential people in my life, he made me the person I am today,” Speight says.
Had it not been for the advice given to Speight by Ratu Iloilo, the superstar winger would be playing in New Zealand and likely sporting an All Black top.
To know Speight is to understand his childhood.
His mother died when he was aged just eight, and with his father working in New Zealand, it was Ratu Iloilo who took in Speight and his four siblings in Suva.
One of the most exciting wingers in world rugby today, Speight put his international ambitions on hold for 12 months to show loyalty to the Brumbies – despite being pursued by Chiefs attack coach Wayne Smith, the former All Blacks assistant.
Beaurecratic red-tape from the IRB has forced Speight to wait until September 11 to become eligible for the Wallabies, when he would have been eligible for the All Blacks last year had he taken up the Chiefs’ offer.
“My grandfather always told me; ‘Be grateful to people who give you an opportunity’,” Speight says.
“The Brumbies and Australian rugby have given me the biggest opportunity of my life, so I’m trying to work through the full distance and work hard for the Brumbies.
“My opportunity was given here, and I would like to think that I’m trying to be loyal to the Brumbies.
“This is where I got my chance so I thought I would repay the Brumbies and sign for another two years (until the end of 2016).
“I am happy to call Canberra home.
“I lost my mum at a young age and my grandfather was the one that brought us up, he was kind enough to take us in and raise us.
“He was my maternal grandfather, he was always big on humility and showing gratitude for things, no matter how big or small, he instilled those values in us whenever he could.”
The frustrating roller-coaster began in 2008 when Speight, at the time playing in New Zealand, signed a three-year deal to play for ITM Cup side Waikato, the feeder club for the Chiefs.
In 2010, the Chiefs’ head coach at the time, Ian Foster, was only prepared to offer Speight an extended playing squad contract for Super Rugby, while the Brumbies were throwing him a guaranteed two-year full-time contract.
“It came down to a personal goal in life, to play in Super Rugby, that was the dream I’d had all my life,” Speight said.
“I knew if I could be part of a full squad, I had a good chance to make it.”
So he grabbed the Brumbies’ offer and seized his chance, becoming a sensation in Super Rugby and generating much hype as to his international eligibility.
But because he had already signed for a third season of ITM Cup with Waikato and played with them at the end of the 2011 season, Speight was deemed ineligible for the Wallabies by the IRB until this year because of stuffy laws that state a player must play in one country only for three consecutive years before becoming available for their national team.
“In 2012, when I was going to re-sign for the Brumbies, I got a call from Wayne Smith, he asked if I was keen to come back,” Speight revealed.
“By then I was into my second year with the Brumbies.
“It was a good opportunity to go back and be part of a good team, but Canberra gave me this opportunity.
“The gold jersey is the ultimate goal, I didn’t want to look back.
“I thought the IRB would be a bit more understanding.
“Even though I’d signed with the Brumbies, I had a provincial contract with Waikato in the ITM Cup (from 2008-11), when I came to the Brumbies I always knew there was one more season of ITM Cup that I had to fulfil before I went back.
“For two months of playing, just eight or nine weeks, that pushed my eligibility back for another whole year.
“I tried to explain that there was a contract I had signed for three years before moving, I couldn’t do anything about it, but they were pretty harsh.”
Speight’s patience will be rewarded when he is named in the Wallabies’ squad to tour South Africa and Argentina soon after he becomes eligible, and he is destined to be starting on the wing in Australia’s World Cup campaign next year.
Where ever his rugby journey takes him, Speight will always have his grandfather in the back of his mind.
Ratu Iloilo passed days before Speight made his Super Rugby debut in 2011. Speight flew to Fiji for the funeral on Thursday, returned for the Brumbies’ captain’s run on Friday, and with a heavy heart played on the Saturday night (February 19), ironically against the Chiefs who the Brumbies disposed of last week to get into the semi-finals.
- The Daily Telegraph