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From the front line to the try line

By Paul Gittings, CNN
updated 9:14 AM EDT, Wed May 1, 2013
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Fiji's rugby warrior
Fiji's rugby warrior
Fiji's rugby warrior
Fiji's rugby warrior
Fiji's rugby warrior
Fiji's rugby warrior
Fiji's rugby warrior
Fiji's rugby warrior
Fiji's rugby warrior
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Semesa Rokoduguni is an up and coming star of rugby union
  • The 25-year-old Fijian has signed professional forms with top English club Bath
  • He has starred in the annual Army-Navy match at Twickenham for past two years
  • Rokodoguni has served on the front line in Afghanistan with his tank regiment

CNN's Human to Hero series celebrates inspiration and achievement in sport. Click here for videos and features.

(CNN) -- As a shivering and nervous new recruit to the British Army in 2007 -- wearing three layers just to keep warm -- Semesa Rokoduguni began to seriously question why he had left the tropical Pacific Island of Fiji.

"Everyone just looked at me and burst out laughing," he told CNN's Human to Hero series.

With limited grasp of the English language, Rokoduguni had to bite his lip and take his medicine to earn the respect of his colleagues in the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, a tank regiment based in Germany.

But fast forward six years and Rokoduguni has had the last laugh because when he is not patrolling the front line with the army in dangerous trouble spots such as Afghanistan, he is charging to the try line at the home of rugby union Twickenham.

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The skills he acquired playing barefoot as a child back home in rugby-mad Fiji -- where kids often use bottles because they have no ball -- earned him a place in the British Army representative side and it was not long before professional clubs took an interest.

Still a serving officer, risen to the rank of Lance Corporal, Rokoduguni signed a professional contract with leading English Premiership side Bath at the start of 2012-13 season.

Star rookie

Now 25, his swift and aggressive running has seen him impress despite his rookie status and he scored a fine try in a recent win over one of the most successful clubs in European rugby, Leicester.

It's a highly unusual double life and he reminds his new teammates that although rugby is a tough and physical sport, the lifestyle is a world apart from active service.

"I've been telling the boys at Bath, we do four patrols a day and you have to do that for every single day, there's no Saturday or Sunday, where you get days off. It's a hard life."

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But Rokoduguni also believes the teamwork ethic that is necessary for very survival in a theater of conflict such as Afghanistan can cross over to sports.

"Trusting the guys beside you it is basically the same thing out there and on the rugby field as well," he said.

"Team bonding is a massive thing out there, you have to trust every single one in front of you, left right and behind you."

Rokoduguni's performance for the Army against the Navy in the traditional annual match at a packed Twickenham last year -- running in a hat-trick of tries -- brought him to national prominence for the first time.

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Given his outstanding performances in the pro game with Bath, expectations were high for the 2013 edition last weekend.

Record crowd

A record crowd of over 72,000 watched the match -- the increased interest echoing the hullabaloo which surrounds the Army-Navy clash in collegiate gridiron football in the United States -- and the Fijian ace did not disappoint.

Another hat-trick of tries helped the Army team to another thrilling 43-26 victory over their arch rivals.

Just setting foot for the first time on the turf at the "Holy Grail" of the sport was an eye opener for Rokoduguni, given the rudimentary facilities he had grown up with.

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"I thought, 'Oh my god, this is Twickenham.' I've just heard about this place and watching it on telly, I never realized that I would set foot on a ground like this.

"I was thinking back to my primary school life, playing rugby barefoot, chasing people around, smashing each other up! "

Rugby is the national sport in Fiji -- a former colony of the British Empire, hence the tradition of young men from the Pacific Island joining its armed forces.

Rokoduguni's uncle followed that route and inspired his nephew to sign up in the summer of 2007. His brother is also serving with famous Black Watch regiment in Scotland.

Despite the relatively small numbers of Fijians in the British Army, they make a large contingent of the rugby squad and for Rokoduguni it's almost a home from home, and allows him to use his native tongue in private moments.

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Role model

Rokoduguni is following in the footsteps of Aposoli Satala, who also represented the British Army before playing in England's top flight with Gloucester and Sale Sharks.

"Watching him playing Premiership rugby, I thought one day I'll be doing the same thing but, I never realized it's going to be that soon," Rokoduguni said.

"When I got the call from Bath coach Gary Gold I was overwhelmed, to be honest. I thought it was a joke and hung up on him!"

But Gold was deadly serious and set about transforming Rokoduguni's raw talent into the finished product after an inauspicious start.

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"On the first day of training, my passing was absolutely ridiculous, I mean I couldn't even pass on my left-hand side," he recalled.

"To get up to that level you have to work extra hard, it's the only way you can improve yourself, the extra time you put in, the extra effort you put into the game or into the training."

But if there is one thing that the Army has instilled in Rokoduguni it is discipline: "You have to dress up correctly, be punctual at all times, uniforms ironed."

It was a culture shock after his self-confessed "easy life" back home -- where he admits a love for the local alcohol kava resulted in him getting a gold tooth after coming off second best in a drunken fight.

"Punctuality, shaving and haircuts, I just didn't care about that stuff ... Everything has changed a lot," he laughed.

Like Satala, who has been a star of Fiji's world renowned seven-a-side team, Rokoduguni is also an expert of that version of rugby which relies more on speed and agility than the traditional 15-a-side game.

Rugby Sevens will take its place in the Summer Olympics for the first time at Rio 2016 and Rokoduguni, who is already being tipped to have an international future, could be left with a dilemma.

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"I'm not too sure whether it's England or Fiji," he said, while admitting he still thinks of Suva, the capital city of Fiji as "home" -- particularly at Christmas time when he longs for the warm weather rather than the British rain and chill. His wife and son are also back in Fiji with his parents until he can arrange for their travel visa.

Soldiers supported

Fame and no little fortune may await Rokoduguni but his thoughts are always with his fellow servicemen and women who are risking their lives in Afghanistan.

"I was man of the match against Newport Gwent Dragons (scoring two tries on his debut in November) and as soon as they announced my name I was thinking of them straight away," he said.

"I dedicated the win to them to let them know that even though I'm back here, all my support is with them out there."

Rokoduguni pays regular visits to the rehabilitation unit at Headley Court, south of London, where severely injured combatants are treated.

Read: Goliathan task for Olympic hopefuls

A Fijian comrade is currently recovering there, and Rokoduguni made him a promise ahead of the latest Army-Navy game.

"I asked the doctors and nurses to make sure that they got him a television so that he could watch this game and I said that if I scored a try that I would do a backflip for him, which is what I did."

Meanwhile, back home in Fiji, Rokoduguni's proud parents are keeping up to date with his progress by watching YouTube clips of his try-scoring exploits.

Judging by his rapid rise to the top they will be glued to the worldwide web for many years to come as Rokoduguni terrorizes rugby defenses with his blistering pace and stockily built 94 kg frame.

But he knows that at any time the call might come to join his regiment on a tour of duty in Afghanistan or another area of conflict where British troops will be deployed, and his sporting ambitions would have to be placed on hold.

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