Fiji’s fly-half was born and bred in Cornwall but his heart was always with his father’s homeland
Think of rugby in Cornwall and grizzled front-row forwards such as Brian “Stack” Stevens, Phil Vickery and Trevor Woodman spring to mind. Fijian fly-halves? Not so much. But marshalling the islanders’ backline at Twickenham on Friday, providing the platform for the sidesteps and body-swerves, will be Josh Matavesi – born and raised near the Camborne quarries rather than on Suva’s sand.
His father, Sireli, was a coconut farmer from the remote Vanua Balavu island but made such an impression on a Fiji Barbarians tour in the 1980s that Camborne RFC wanted him back. They found him a job in the nearby tin mines and it was with Camborne that Josh began a career that has included spells at Exeter, Racing 92, Worcester and now the Ospreys, earning a 14th Fiji cap in the dominant victory over Canada last Saturday.
“There’s a real pride to play for your home club in Cornwall,” says Matavesi. “A pride to put on the first-team colours and then represent my county, it’s up there with my international honours. It’s such a rich place to play, I loved every minute of Cornish rugby, it was something that my dad’s done, all my uncles have done. You grow up aspiring to be your favourite Camborne player. I pop down every time I get the chance for a pasty and a pint of cider. It’s a very tight-knit community, everyone goes along on a Saturday.”
At one stage Matavesi was on England’s radar, called up by the under-20s in 2009 when his contemporaries included Owen Farrell, Ben Youngs and Manu Tuilagi, but he does not consider himself English – Cornish-Fijian is his preferred term. At a time when so much of Fiji’s young talent is gobbled up by rugby’s superpowers it is refreshing to hear that Matavesi’s heart was always with his father’s homeland.
“It’s a little bit weird, being born and raised here, you can get brought up to support England, but I’ve always been aligned with Fiji. I will be 100% Fijian on Friday,” says Matavesi, whose younger brothers Sam and Joel play for Plymouth Albion and the Ospreys respectively.
“Growing up, everyone else wanted to be Jonny Wilkinson but I wanted to be Waisale Serevi, [Vilimoni] Delasau or Nicky Little and it was the same with my brothers. We were always a little bit different from our friends. That made us stand out – that and being the only Cornish Fijians around. We’re representing the country, we’re representing the kids at home. We want them to put that white shirt on rather than [play for] the All Blacks, Australia, England or Wales.”
Like most of Fiji’s backs, Matavesi does not want for size but it is reasonable to wonder if his upbringing deprives him of the instinctive footwork – honed back home in the barefoot beach matches – that characterises England’s opening opponents. “The way I grew up playing rugby is a little bit different from my team-mates but I think we all have that spark and flair,” says the 24-year-old. “It’s that bit of instinct that we’re born with. I don’t think it matters where you’re from or where you’re brought up, if you’re Fijian you’ve got a little bit of spark in you.”
Fiji won the Pacific Nations Cup last month. If it has taken a while for English, Welsh and Australian supporters to appreciate the threat they pose in Pool A, Matavesi and co are now taken seriously. There is a constant drain on Fiji’s talent pool but there is enough left to give a few bloody noses at the World Cup. “People are beginning to realise we can beat these teams but as a squad you’re always confident in your own ability,” he says.
“There’s Niki Goneva at Leicester, Nemani Nadolo at Crusaders, Leone Nakarawa at Glasgow, Nikola Matawalu at Bath, these guys are the best players at their clubs. If you can get them together for a period of time and integrate, there’s going to be some danger. We’re confident that we can get through the pool. It will be a big test but bring on England first and then we’ll go from there.”
After England Fiji lock horns with Australia and then Wales, on 1 October, when Matavesi will come up against his club-mate Dan Biggar. It is a duel he is relishing, “Dan’s one of the best in the world, he’s a perfectionist,” but England occupy Matavesi’s thoughts for now and he could face another familiar face at Twickenham. He and Jack Nowell were at Truro College and remain close friends. It may require an injury to Jonny May or Anthony Watson but, even if the Exeter wing does start Friday’s curtain-raiser, the pair will not lose their pastoral perspective.
“I grew up training and playing with Jack. It will be a special moment if we’re starting or in the 23, to come from the same college and then be playing against each other,” Matavesi says. “But we won’t let the occasion get the better of us. We’ll just catch up for a coffee and a bite to eat. We’re just two Cornish boys at the end of the day.”
- The Guardian