For one Rochdale rugby player, tonight’s World Cup opener between England and Fiji carries a level of significance that goes beyond the mere eighty minutes, owing to an association that backdates half a century.
Michael Ratu, who played rugby league for the Fijian national side back in 2009, is the third generation of his family to play for Rochdale Hornets after his grandfather and uncle, the former having come over from the Pacific Island in the 1960s.
With Rochdale now boasting the country’s biggest population of Fijians outside of London, and tonight’s test at Twickenham on everyone’s lips, the story behind this unlikely alliance certainly bears repeating, regardless of the difference in code.
“Obviously this all happened before I was born, but I’ve heard the story many times,” Ratu told MM.
“Four Fijians came to England in the 1960s to play for Rochdale Hornets.
“They were well-established Fijians – regarded as the best at the time – and they were embraced, which was the early stages of the Fijian connection.
“My granddad was the youngest at 17, but the opportunity to come to England from Fiji must have been massive.
“He obviously settled and started a family here, and the community in Rochdale just grew after that, spreading to Huddersfield and Yorkshire.
“It’s a unique culture, and everyone’s proud to be part of that community.”
With the Rochdale Fijian Association still going strong ever since it was founded in the early 1970s, it is unsurprising that Ratu has detected real excitement amongst his Hornets teammates over the week.
“There’s been quite a big buzz – all my colleagues have been talking about it,” he said.
“There’s a local pub in Rochdale – The Flying Horse, which is synonymous with rugby – who are hosting a function with local cuisine, and I think they’re even importing some Fijian beers.”
Having devoted his life to rugby league – Ratu played for Leeds Rhinos and Hull KR before joining Rochdale Hornets – he has seen the ‘Bati’, as the national side are known, reach the semi-finals of the Rugby League World Cup in 2009 and 2013.
In rugby union, however, despite reaching the quarter-finals in 2007, Fiji are often condescendingly looked upon as plucky underdogs, a mere banana skin to be swept aside.
As for tonight’s game, Ratu, while stopping short of predicting a Fijian win, believes that the Pacific Islanders will give a good account of themselves.
“I don’t think people understand how far Fiji rugby union has come.
“In two or three years the levels of professionalism have just gone up, and a lot of money has gone into that side of things.
“From my experience, there’s a lot of development to do when it comes to union.
“But it should be a really good indicator of how far we’ve come.
“Being realistic, England should and will win, but I don’t think it will be a cricket score.
“I’m going to go with 26-5 to England.”
Whoever emerges victorious, you suspect that several of those Fijian beers may be sunk in the centre of Rochdale tonight.
Image courtesy of World Rugby via YouTube, with thanks.