Iosefo credits family for rise in rugby

Fijian Drua's Iosefo Masi goes on attack against Melbourne Rebels during the trial match at Prince Charles Park in Nadi. Picture: REINAL CHAND

Not many Fijian ruggers can claim they have donned the white jersey and represented Fiji in sevens and 15s rugby. Iosefo Masi is one of the few that can boast to have represented the country in both codes.

And there to witness his debut with the Swire Shipping Fijian Drua last Saturday against the Shop N Save Super Rugby Pacific side the Melbourne Rebels at Prince Charles Park, Nadi, was his doting mother — Adela Nukunawa.

The Olympic Games gold medallist said he had a flashback to his high school days when he saw his mum standing in the rain, watching him play his first match for the Drua.

Masi signed a contract with the Drua late last year after a short stint with an Australian National Rugby League club, the North Queensland Cowboys.

Nukunawa, the lanky forward’s mother, said she has always been proud of her son’s many achievements but running onto the field with the Drua was really special.

“Ever since he started playing in primary school, most of the time soccer, I would always go and watch him play,” she said.

She said she was emotional during the Drua match against the Rebels because of how far her son had come in his rugby career. For Masi, nothing came close to the respect he had for his mother.

“She’s my biggest fan and has been there for me since the very beginning,” the 24-year-old Waitabu, Taveuni, native said.

Growing up on the Garden Island, Masi’s interest had always been soccer. It wasn’t until he played for Holy Cross College in Wairiki, Taveuni, did he develop an interest in rugby.

“Masi played soccer during most of his childhood and was somehow never really interested in playing rugby,” his mother shared.

She said when all the village boys would be running along the village green playing a game of rugby touch, Masi would be out playing soccer with a few Fijian friends of Indian descent in the area.

“However, he managed to play rugby for Holy Cross in the under-15 grade. After that season, Masi instantly fell in love with the sport.

“From then on his father would take him to watch rugby competitions on Taveuni and other sevens tournaments.”

Three years later, Masi moved to Suva to attend Suva Grammar School to complete his Year 13 education. He represented the Grammarians in their under-18 Dean’s side and managed to reach the quarter-finals in 2016.

Masi was instantly selected to play for renowned local sevens club Tabadamu and represented the club at multiple sevens tournaments.

“I was able to make it into the Tabadamu squad and played a few games with the team at local sevens tournaments.”

It was during a game at a local sevens tournament that he caught the eye of Fiji Rugby scouts. As a result, Masi forced his way into the national sevens squad.

“When I started playing rugby in high school, I always wanted to play for Fiji,” he said.

His obsession with the Fiji side resulted in him snipping pictures of national seven’s players from pages of The Fiji Times and pasting them on his school desk.

“It was an in-thing back then to paste pictures of rugby players on your desk.” After a few seasons with Tabadamu, Masi was selected into the national squad and was part of the team that won gold at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. In 2021, Masi left our shores for a short stint in Australia where he earned a spot in the North Queensland Cowboys on train and replacement contracts.

“Though I never really got a chance to play any official matches for the Cowboys, I really learnt a lot during my time there and was able to upskill myself there.” One year later, Masi was able to impress Swire Shipping Fijian Drua coach Mick Byrne who named him into the squad in November.

“Joining the Drua had also been a goal of mine, to play in a team where almost all of the players were local players.” Seeing his mum brave the heavy rains in Nadi last week as the Drua had their first prematch game against the Rebels meant the world to him.

“It just brought back memories of when I used to play rugby for Tabadamu, my mum would always make the effort to come and support me.” Now in training camp with the Fijian Drua, Masi deems team bonding as one of the most fundamental tools for a strong team.

“The bond we have with each other is very important. We the players need to be emotionally connected with our brothers here in the team because we know we will have each other’s back on the field.”

Throughout his entire rugby career so far, Masi says that the time he spent playing with one of the most prolific sevens players in the world, Jerry Tuwai, was a dream come true.

“I would watch him play on the television and would cheer for him.”

On the field with Tuwai, Masi said he always admired his style of play in the middle of the game. “Sometimes I get distracted and would watch as he would sidestep two to three defenders on one go.”

He said he decided to move on to 15s because he felt he had achieved the dream of playing for the national sevens team and even managed to win a gold medal.

“Now my focus is on the Drua and do my best to perform well.”

But looking back to how far he has come, Masi believes that the prayers and fasting of his mother, family and relatives back on Taveuni have boosted his performance

. “I believe that the prayers of my parents and family have opened doors and opportunities for me right up until this day.”

Every time the Taveiuni lad runs out onto the rugby field, always on the back of his mind are his parents.

“They are my biggest supporters and they have been there for me since day one.

“That’s why my first game with the Drua was very special to me, because both my parents were there watching me play.”

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