By JOEL MORGAN
Peni Botiki has come a long way from a small village in Lautoka. It’s there where he played for Saru Dragons, but now he laces on his rugby league boots for Ilawarra Cutters, the feeder club of famous NRL club St George-Illawarra Dragons in the NSW Cup competition, the next tier below the NRL, which features full-time NRL club squad members and part-time players from these clubs. Like Botiki, it’s where soon a lot more Fijian players will participate through the Fiji NSW Cup Bid Team from 2016.
In the space of three years, Peni has moved from his home village Tavakubu in Lautoka, where his grandmother is from and where he has grown up his whole life to now seeing the bright lights of Sydney. He has made the transition from living a sugar cane growing region in Fiji to now being based in the Illawarra coal cutting region, living in Wollongong, near Sydney and regularly playing in the strong NSW Cup competition against clubs from Sydney, Newcastle, Canberra and New Zealand. He has moved away from family and his home village to change his and their lives in order to give back. Now, Peni is inspiring the next generation of Fijian youth, he says; “it’s kind of really hard during those early days, but working hard and doing a lot of extra training and wanting to change my whole family’s lives for the best is one of the huge things that keeps me focused.”
Peni’s debut season in the NSW Cup has certainly been a progression from his Saru Dragons days, He gave us an insight into the differences he has faced in this transition “for me every day is a learning day trying to take in everything in that is being shown at training or during game day to improve myself and progress my rugby league career.” He says his best experience in NSW Cup would be “learning from my mistakes every week and learning how to improve my skills when I have to face the same situation again within a game,” it’s this view that provides top advice for Fijian youth looking up to him from home.
One major difference in future that Fijians could previously only dream of will be having a professional pathway from juniors to full-time environment at home, this will soon be realised through the Fiji NSW Cup. This program will help provide large development and educational opportunities for youth and players, but especially provide these players a larger “shop window” to NRL clubs. Botiki says: “Fiji NSW Cup Bid I think is the best and a huge step forward, what Petero and Greg have will be great for local players and I’m so happy they come up with a proposal like this will make it much easier for players back home to get big contract here in Australia.
Last year, the opportunity of a lifetime arose for Botiki when he was called up to the Fiji Bati RLWC 2013 campaign. Playing against England he now lists this as his favourite sporting moment of his life; “it would have to be the World Cup game against England, walking out of the change rooms with the crowd cheering. At that moment it felt like everything just paused and standing alongside all my Bati brothers singing the national anthem – it just so emotional. We couldn’t wait to make our family, friends & country proud.” He proudly said after his debut and pulling on the Fiji Bati jersey for the first time; “wearing that jersey is one of my biggest and most satisfying achievements in my life and I knew instantly I had a big job to do on the field for my country.”
It’s this Rugby League World Cup campaign that one Fiji NSW Cup Bid leader and Rugby League Legend Petero Civoniceva gave Botiki his biggest praise of all classing him as “a team weapon” and has helped drive him even further as he says; “someone huge in rugby league like the legend Petero Civoniceva, it has just pushed me to another level and I want to thank him for those kind words. I’ve been so lucky to play alongside him in representing our beloved country.”
It is players like this that the Fiji NSW Cup Bid Team lead by Petero Civoniceva and Greg Browne will help inspire and help provide full-time opportunities from home then earn a shot at the big time.