No access to gym equipment? No problem for Fiji’s Alasio Naduva. The 1.65m winger has fought his way from a remote rural village to the heart of the Fiji men’s rugby sevens team and, with the opportunity to help his nation defend its Olympic crown looming, nothing is going to stop him now.
“Because the gyms are locked, I am using paint tins,” Naduva laughed. “I take out the paint, mix cement and put it in, and then get a rod and make a weight bar into another tin full of cement. They weigh around 20kg each. I also made some dumbbells.”
Such improvisation comes naturally to the 29-year-old, who is a serving lance corporal in the Fijian army. While he is excused large swathes of his duties in order to represent his country in its national sport, Naduva has been on the front line recently.
“During Cyclone Harold we were going to cut up the fallen trees, clean up the roads, make the community better, help people whose houses had been damaged,” he said of the second most powerful cyclone on record to hit Fiji, which caused flooding and destruction across the islands in early April 2020.
Once those tasks were completed and it was clear he was not needed to help directly in Fiji’s battle to contain COVID-19, Naduva took a boat out of the capital, Suva, and headed to his childhood home. A 12-hour sail later and the man commonly hailed as the fastest rugby player on the planet right now was back where it all began.
“I planted cassava and yams; when I was a child I used to farm all the time,” he said. “It was great to go back. It’s been a long time.”
Naduva’s journey from sowing and harvesting to winning the 2018/19 World Rugby Sevens Series was lengthy too. Despite his now legendary speed – a quick trawl of the World Rugby Sevens Series website showcases some of the extraordinary tries he has scored in the last few seasons – Naduva never competed on the track.
In fact, he only truly understood he was fast when he joined the army aged 18.
I started playing rugby at a provincial level and then I knew I could run, that I have speed to burn Alasio Naduva - Alasio Naduva
“It’s just natural, a God-given talent”, he said with a growing smile.
The diminutive rocket made his World Series debut only in 2017/18 but has scored a remarkable 72 tries in his 125 matches since. He cites, as his favourite try to date, his last-minute match-winner against Australia in the final of the 2018 Singapore Sevens. But for many viewers, the corker he scored against Japan in Sydney last year will never be bettered.
It is best described by the man himself.
“We used to practise it; we’d call it a ‘greedy’. It was always the kick to the back for me to chase down, make a tackle, and then we would try and turn over the ball. But that kick passed all the Japan boys and I just kept chasing. I didn’t want the ball going into touch [before he got there] so I sped [up] a little bit and scored that amazing try.”
It took all of seven seconds from the whistle to Naduva touching down, and he was clocked by the World Rugby cameras travelling at an incredible 36kmph while doing it.
“I can do better than that,” he said, the laugh back. “It made me want to work harder. It showed me I can do more, get faster. Now I am doing all my speed work [during the pause in the international rugby calendar caused by the COVID-19 pandemic], maybe next year will be something different.”
It is little wonder the nickname “Mr Nitro” has stuck. People on the streets all over Fiji shout out “Bula [an uplifting Fijian greeting], Mr Nitro” whenever he passes during one of his many training runs. It helps that he played a key role in helping secure that World Series crown in 2018/19, Fiji’s fourth overall and first since winning consecutive titles in 2014/15 and 2015/16.
For a nation with a population of about 900,000, Fiji boasts an enviable rugby sevens record. But even for a country that is long used to savouring success, the Olympic Games Rio 2016 delivered something special.
“That day was emotional,” Naduva recalled of 12 August 2016, when Fiji beat Great Britain 43-7 to win the inaugural men’s rugby sevens Olympic title – and Fiji’s first Games medal of any colour. “The whole country was watching TV. Fiji was in a mood to celebrate.
“It has had a big impact. It’s put Fiji on the map, promoted our beautiful islands and our people, especially our tourism. Most of all, it has promoted the game of rugby sevens.
“It takes a lot of work to hit those standards that the old boys have. We have to stick there. It motivated me to work hard and pursue my dream of representing Fiji in the Olympic Games. If I am chosen to be part of the Tokyo squad next year, I will be grateful.”