Exclusive! Fiji rugby captain Jerry Tuwai: How poverty helped drive my career

The 2019 World Player of the Year reveals the unlikely source of his world-famous side-step, why he wrote ‘knife’ and ‘fork’ on his boots, and why Olympic gold medal glory helped reunify Fiji.
By Andrew Binner

Jerry Tuwai arguably has the fastest feet in rugby sevens.

The Fijian has the ability to side-step opponents in a phone booth, and if you look his name up on the internet, you’ll see whole videos dedicated to his outstanding agility.

But where many of his counterparts on the world series from England, Australia, and New Zealand honed their skills on the pristine grass fields of elite sports academies, Tuwai learnt the game on the gravel roundabout of a small town in Fiji’s capital Suva.

“We would play three-a-side touch rugby every afternoon, after school, on our small roundabout in Newtown," the Rio 2016 Olympic gold medallist told Olympic Channel on a video link from Fiji.

"We learnt to adapt. I learnt how to step, and how to manipulate the defence... We had to step in order to score tries in such limited space."

While space was at a premium, there was no lack of creativity or passion from the kids, who just wanted to play rugby.

“Instead of a ball we would use water bottles with gravel inside, and we played barefoot. Sometimes I got injured and two or three nails would come off because of the gravel. But the next day I would come back again because it was so much fun." - Jerry Tuwai to Olympic Channel.

Growing up in poverty

Tuwai and his family lived in a one-room shack, with no running water or electricity. His father scraped by as a farmer, while his mother worked as a housemaid for FJ$50 (US$22) a week.

Touring the world, living in hotels and being paid to play rugby in packed stadiums in Las Vegas, Cape Town, and Hong Kong couldn’t have been further from the half-back’s reality.

“I was kicked out from school, so my mum and dad told me to do something else, and I looked into rugby. But it was hard due to my size. Because I'm small, growing up I was always the last one picked,” he continued to Olympic Channel.

“They saved all their money and called me one day to say that had bought some boots for me. White and blue Nike ones.

“I was crying while holding the boots because I knew the situation that we were in. They told me that this was my life now, and will put food on the table for us.

“From that moment on I wrote ‘knife’ and ‘fork’ on my boots, as they would help me provide for my family." - Jerry Tuwai

Paying school fees for his sisters

The decision to invest in rugby boots for their son proved an astute one from Tuwai’s parents.

It wasn’t long before he was able to use them in helping his sisters finish their education.

“One Friday, I was messing around at home with my friends, joking and talking, doing stupid stuff.

“That afternoon the local rugby team came looking for me as they needed a winger to play for them in a big, provincial sevens tournament the next day in Sigatoka.

“My mum gave me FJ$10 for my taxi fare to meet the team, but as we didn’t have much, I took the bus which was just a FJ$1 fare. The next Monday my two sisters were supposed to be sitting for an exam but their school fees were not paid and they were not going to be allowed to take the exam.

“So on Saturday, I prayed for God to give me fitness and knowledge, so that we could win the tournament, and I could pay my sisters’ fees with the winnings."

Tuwai prayed for fitness and knowledge, so that he could win some money for his family at a rugby tournament.

“We played three pool games and I scored two tries in each game. I got injured in the semi-final, but we won the tournament and split the FJ$7,000 prize money. So I came back home, gave all that money to my mum and dad who told me to take some money, but I said, ‘no, this is for the family and my two sisters’.

“From that moment on, I knew that through rugby, I could help my family, and it motivated me to pursue my rugby career.”

While money troubles are no longer a major concern for the Tuwai's, the 31-year-old still uses his family as motivation to play.

“It's everything for me to see my mum and my dad, my brothers and sisters. Even now, when I’m training and I get tired, when I want to give up, I think about the things my mum and dad did for me, they are the main motivation in my life for playing rugby." he explains.

Learning to love Ben Ryan's training

The next major boost to Tuwai’s rugby career came from an unexpected source.

Ben Ryan had been appointed as the new head coach of Fiji’s rugby sevens team, and the Englishman was scouring the island for its top talent.

The diminutive stepper from Newtown immediately caught Ryan’s eye at a national sevens tournament with some blistering tries.

A call-up to train with the national side soon followed, but the training took some getting used to for Tuwai, who had previously just relied on raw talent.

“I hated training, hated it!” Tuwai continued. “At the first training session we were running four 400s (metres). Beside our training grounds there were drains, and flowers planted there.

"On the second round I was looking at Ben, Ben was looking at me, and I jumped into the drain and I hid from Ben Ryan there until he called me up."

“Ben loves to talk and he’s really good at motivational speeches. I’ll never forget what he told me that day, about never giving up. It connects me back to what my dad and my parents taught me about never giving up.”

Ryan embraced new methods of training, and the drills he made his players do in the nearby sand dunes of Sigatoka became legendary on the rugby sevens circuit.

Making the most out of the natural surroundings, the players were made to run up and down the heavy sand in scorching heat.

“Ben Ryan didn’t take us up those sand dunes to train our body or our fitness, but he took us there to train our mentality. He wanted to give us mental toughness that we could use on the pitch when we became tired at competitions.”

Lifting spirits after Cyclone Winston

Rugby sevens is the national sport of Fiji, and the Pacific nation’s mood is intrinsically linked to the performance of their team overseas.

While the people cheer and sing in the street after every victory on the world series, the team also hold the power to lift the spirits of its people when they are in need.

In early 2016, the most powerful tropical storm ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere tore into Fiji.

The 280 km/h (175 mph) winds of Cyclone Winston killed 44 people, while 40,000 homes were either damaged or destroyed in a month-long spell that caused US$1.4 billion worth of damage.

“We were flying out to play in Las Vegas when the hurricane hit. We never experienced all the horrors of it.

Osea Kolinisau was the captain and he’s a born leader. He's really good at motivating younger boys like us, and he told us that rugby is everything in Fiji. Even though the country was suffering, the people will still climb mountains to try and watch us play. All of Fiji was watching, and we can boost their morale and bring happiness back to Fiji."

In an emotional final, Fiji overturned a 15-point deficit to beat Australia, dedicating their victory to those that had lost their lives back home.

Fiji dedicated their win in Las Vegas (below) to those who had lost their lives back home.

Olympic joy and a nation in unity

Fiji used the momentum of that victory in Las Vegas to claim the world series that year, as well as rugby sevens’ first Olympic gold medal at Rio 2016.

Their 43-7 demolition of Great Britain in the final also marked the first Olympic gold medal won by a Pacific island nation ever, and the images of a nation in unity, delirious with joy, were beamed around the world.

“I could not have dreamed something like this, the biggest prize in sport, would happen for us. But we didn’t realise how much it meant to the people until we reached our airport in Fiji.

“People from all walks of life were standing there, calling out our names. Then you realise that you have done something really big.”

Relishing responsibility

While many of Fiji’s Olympic gold medallists either retired after that win, or quit the team in order to sign lucrative 15-a-side rugby contracts in Europe, Tuwai stayed to usher in a new era of dominance in sevens.

In 2018 he was rewarded with the captaincy of the team, before being named World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year in 2019.

“I think all the responsibility of being captain, winning a lot of awards and all this stuff pushed us to be a better rugby player, and stronger person. But my life, I cannot achieve that without my brothers in the team.

With Fiji leading the overall series table before the season was postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the men from the Pacific will be favourites to defend their Olympic title in Tokyo, in 2021. Will Tuwai be there?

“I want to play in Tokyo, but things are a little in the air after it was moved. Right now I’ll just enjoy my rugby and see where God takes me next.”