The populations of Suva and Rochdale are similar at about 90,000. The only other things to connect the two towns over the years have been a willingness to fight in the British army and rugby league.
Never one of the glamour teams of the game, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms, Rochdale is as much a part of the game as broken-time payments, glowering northern skies and the M62, which skirts the town to the south. In 1958 Rochdale Hornets chairman, Arthur Walker, was with the Great Britain touring party to Australia. While he was there he spotted a player he thought might give his club a lift. Unfortunately Joe Levula was Fijian and forbidden by elders and union authorities from leaving Fiji for anything other than education. Walker wasn’t to be put off and in 1960 he put an advertisement in the Fiji Times seeking rugby players interested in the opportunity to play as professionals in the north of England. In 1961 Walker managed to pull off the signing of Orisi Dawai, the captain of the Fijian rugby union side. He said he’d travel to Rochdale and sign for the club if he could bring his cousin with him. Hornets thought it would help their new signing to settle if he had a friend with him so they agreed. The cousin turned out to be the very player, Joe Levula, who had excited the Rochdale chairman three years earlier, and thus began a remarkable marriage between the south sea island of Fiji and the Lancashire mill town.
Rochdale now boasts the largest Fijian community in Britain and the link between club and country is still strong. Michael Ratu is the third generation of his family to play for the club. On Monday night the link was further forged when the town played host to its first world cup fixture (in any sport) when Fiji took on Ireland at the Spotland Stadium. 8,872 Rochdale folk turned out, in a stadium record crowd, to cheer them on. The emotionally charged and characteristically physical Fijian team ran out victors by 32 points to 14.
Once again the world cup planners had got it right. Two unfashionable teams at an unknown stadium provide a stirring and historic match to add to the feeling that, though the game will not break through to a mass audience, it is nonetheless putting on a show. Fijian/Rochdale relations are at an all time high.
On Tuesday we go to the cinema. 9 o’clock in the morning is as unusual for cinema screenings in Britain as international sport at Spotland. Both are excellent developments. Captain Phillips is a fine film. Nearly two and a half hours of dramatic tension. You don’t notice the passing time. I like Tom Hanks enormously as an actor, and director Paul Greengrass shows that it isn’t lack of British talent that leads to the lack of great British films.
We’re joined at the cinema by Charlie. We haven’t seen that much of him since the summer so it’s a real treat for us. Sitting as a three in the cinema with one of our children is always a treat, no matter which one. It has been a long time since we sat in the cinema as a five, but I hope it will happen again before too long.
We celebrate being together by going to the one place on the Valley Centertainments complex (Yes, it is actually called that) where I enjoy eating. The Real Burger Company provide what I have long fancied. Somewhere in England where you can get a decent burger. The service is both friendly and competent. We are able to use cinema cards to get a discount and have large, tasty burgers cooked fresh and served up with a good bowl of hand-cut chips and a big bowl of fresh salad. It’s a comfortable place to catch up with our news and, still having half an hour to wait for a second movie of the day, we order pudding. According to Charlie, and he is something of an authority, the malted milk shake was excellent. The sundaes that T and I had were bigger on presentation than on flavour. But they served their purpose. It was our only meal of the day and was reasonable quality, tasty and at £30 for three; mains, pud and drink; not too bad on the wallet.
The second film told the story of how a boy grew up to win a talent competition. The young man selling the tickets had asked me if I really wanted to see it.
“I’m not expecting it to be brilliant,” I said defensively, “I’m trying to see 100 films in the year.”
“There are plenty of other films.” he rejoined.
“If you see 100 you’ve got to see some poor ones along the way; we’ve seen Identity Thief and Movie 43.”
“That should be enough bad films; you don’t need to see this one.”
“It’s on the Unlimited Card. That’s as good as seeing it for free.”
“You’re still paying with your time.”
“Oh come on. James Corden isn’t always bad and there are worse things than talent shows…hang on, you may have a point.”
His mate at the next till had joined in. The enjoyable, heavily ironic exchange served to lighten the often dismal process of buying cinema tickets. I went into the film chuckling. I continued to chuckle throughout the film. It isn’t a masterpiece but it is light and fun with good performances from Mackenzie Crook (yes, a good performance from Mackenzie Crook) and Alexandra Roach.
In the evening, Derwent Park Workington has its turn to stage its first sporting international as Scotland take on and narrowly beat the Tongans, in front of a crowd of 7,630, in a match of changing fortunes. I snack on toast and paté and delicious, sweet slices of torrone.
A sad footnote to the Fijian story is that very few of the players who came north to play league ever saw Fiji again. There are good reasons: a thriving Fijian community in East Lancashire, more and more players arriving to play for Hornets, Wigan, Huddersfield, Bradford and Batley. There are sad reasons. Hornets recruit Apisia Toga died while in pre-season training of a heart attack at the age of 27. Orisi Dawai, the man who blazed the trail also died very suddenly at the age of 33. There is also the matter of having no sporting future back home. There is now a very strong league culture in Fiji. In the early sixties it was all union, and the Fijian Union, in common with all international ruling bodies for that sport had banned the players for life from the minute they entered negotiations to play the thirteen man code.
Their loss has been our great and lasting gain.