Waisale Serevi: How radio made the rugby star

Published 8:15 AM EDT, Thu May 8, 2014

Story highlights

Fijian rugby idol Waisale Serevi is known as the "King of Sevens"

He played at three Rugby World Cups, but forged his reputation in sevens

During his 17-year career, he won the Hong Kong Sevens on seven occasions

He also led Fiji to two World Cup Sevens triumphs

(CNN) —  

As a young child in Fiji, rugby star Waisale Serevi strained to hear tales of his heroes through the crackles of an old transistor radio.

Those radio waves carried stories of his idols across the seas into the ears of an enraptured Serevi.

It was the 1970s, before television arrived on the shores of the tiny island nation cast 1,700 miles off the east coast of Australia in the Pacific Ocean.

Although it has a population of just 870,000, Fiji’s obsession with the oval ball has helped it stand shoulder-to-shoulder with global superpowers.

In Serevi, Fiji gave rugby a player blessed with such flare, flamboyance and outrageous natural talent, that on many an occasion David was able to stun Goliath.

“I started to get interested in rugby in 1977,” Serevi, who played 36 times for the Fiji’s Rugby Union team, told CNN.

“I was in my school uniform in Fiji, and then people were all happy and shouting and I asked my mum, ‘why are these people happy?’

“They said, ‘Oh Fiji has just beaten the British Lions, and rugby makes people in Fiji happy.’

“So, I thought, if I have an opportunity to play for Fiji, I’ll try and make people happy.”

Fiji’s famous win over the Lions came in the 15-a-side version of the sport but, while Serevi went on to become a member of the International Rugby Board (IRB) Hall of Fame and played at three Rugby World Cups, it was in the seven-a-side game that he excelled.

Sevens is a scaled-down, fast-pace version of rugby union that requires quickness of mind and body and bucket loads of stamina.

At his peak, Serevi possessed all three in spades, so much so that he was dubbed the “King of Sevens.”

If Serevi was the king, his royal residence was the Hong Kong Sevens – the most famous date on the HSBC Sevens World Series calendar and a tournament followed religiously in Fiji.

“It’s a big burden for the players,” said Serevi. “When they come to the Hong Kong Sevens, they have to win to make their name back home in Fiji.

“When Fiji wins the Hong Kong Sevens it’s a good 12 months for us until the next Hong Kong Sevens.

“But, when we lose the Hong Kong Sevens, it’s the worst 12 months. It’s always like ‘Oh no we have to wait for another year!’”

Gallery: New Zealand triumph in Hong Kong

Luckily for Serevi, he enjoyed a plethora of successes during his 17-year career, including seven triumphs in Hong Kong.

In two of those glorious years, 1997 and 2005, the tournament doubled up as the World Cup Sevens and it’s those wins which Serevi remembers most fondly.

“When we won the World Cup Sevens in 1997, the whole people of Fiji, in Fiji and all over the world were so excited,” he explained.

“In 2005, I was so happy that my little boy was here, he was aged three or four and I carried him and took the cup with him home.

“They even closed the airport because the people were coming in and they wanted to meet the plane coming down from the sky.”

At his final Hong Kong Sevens as a player, Serevi illustrated why he is so revered.

In the semifinal match against New Zealand in 2007, he received the ball inside Fiji’s 22-yard line, proceeding to effortlessly slalom his way through three attempted tackles before off-loading the ball to his teammate on the halfway line.

“I saw the two New Zealand guys were like coming and I went straight to their eyes and I could see they were arriving but their eyes told me that they were gone.

That’s why I stepped two of them … they were both tired … I was running slowly because I didn’t have any more energy too and the defenders were coming close.

“I dummied my way and they all went and I went through the middle straight in, and I passed to one of our guys.”

Serevi summoned the energy for one last-gasp burst, receiving a final pass before striding to the try line with the ball raised above his head in jubilation.

“I ran nearly 150 meters,” he recalls. “I was about to die when I scored the try.” Not bad for a 38-year-old.

With his boots now firmly zipped up in his kitbag, the 45-year-old Serevi is focused on finding the next generation of sevens talent.

Serevi Rugby was set up in 2010 by the now retired star and three Seattle-based partners. It aims to encourage children into the sport all over the world, with a specific focus on growing rugby in North America.

The organization has teamed up with USA Rugby in a bid to find more players like Carlin Isles, a former collegiate track prospect who resisted overtures from the NFL to sign with Scottish rugby team Glasgow Warriors.

The aim is for Serevi and USA Rugby to establish a network of training camps from which the country will draw its squads for the Sevens World Series and Olympic competitions, with the sport set to make its Games debut in 2016.

“Rugby has given me a lot,” reflected Serevi. “Twenty one years of rugby. I want to give back to rugby so that I can help rugby kids.

We started in Seattle and now it’s beginning in a lot of other states in the U.S. … We are going into schools in the U.S., they are getting us to go into elementary schools and take their physical education classes so that we teach the kids how to play.”

If Serevi can’t inspire a breakthrough generation of American rugby stars, then nobody can.

Read: Jonah Lomu – The return of a rugby giant

Read: How to survive Hong Kong Sevens