Oh Rupeni, where art Cau

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Rupeni Caucaunibuca is in no way, shape or form forgotten about, in fact he is quite possibly the biggest ‘what if’ in rugby history.

The former Flying Fijian was for a brief period probably or at the very least had the potential to be one of the all time great wingers.

Caucau grew up in a relatively poor village in Fiji, so had little in the way of resources but loved throwing a ball around whenever he got the chance. Eventually Caucau’s natural athletic ability caught the eye of the late Rupeni Ravonu who first bought him into the Fiji Police Sevens team and then later the national sevens side, giving Rupeni his first chance to travel away from his homeland.

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In one of his first ventures overseas he found himself playing at the Wellington Sevens where Jeremy Parkinson (then Northland manager) couldn’t believe what the sort of things Caucau was doing out on the paddock so immediately set out to bring him over to Northland.

“By the time Rupeni returned to Auckland he was a household name and was well and truly going to be a marked man in the upcoming Super season. Caucau clearly didn’t get the memo though”

The sudden interest from a professional union provided a major culture shock for both Rupeni and Parkinson as the Northland staff had to work around Rupeni’s very limited English and lack of a bank account to get him set up for life in New Zealand before they could even think about getting him out on the rugby field. From that point on it was a rapid rise for Rupeni as he was bought into the Blues squad the following year after impressing at provincial level. He immediately impressed by scoring a brace on his debut followed by 8 tries in 8 games during his first full season.

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Having already well and truly burst through the door at club level Caucau then headed over to Australia for the World Cup to show the rest of the world what they were missing out on. Rupeni only made the two appearances against Six Nations powerhouses France and Scotland, but that is all the time he needed as he stole the show by scoring a fantastic solo try against France before following it up by almost single handedly beating Scotland a few weeks later.

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By the time Rupeni returned to Auckland he was a household name and was well and truly going to be a marked man in the upcoming Super season. Caucau clearly didn’t get the memo though as despite the ever growing frame he continued to burn defender after defender on his way to another 5 tries in just 4 outings bringing his final Blues tally to 15 tries in 14 games. Whilst this was going on the French millionaires over in the Top 14 (or Top 16 at the time) were busy licking their lips about the prospect of dropping countless amounts of money on this Fijian wonderkid.

Caucau takes France by Storm

It didn’t take long for Agen to send an offer his way which coming from the background he did Caucau obviously couldn’t refuse. It didn’t take him long to adapt to rugby in France as he lit up the competition on his way to a 16 try haul in his debut season. Off the field though the rapid rise was beginning to prove to much for him as no one had ever showed him what to do with this newfound money and lifestyle. This lead to him dropping pay cheque after pay cheque on drugs, alcohol, food and flights back home to his remote village where he often disappeared for weeks without a trace to get away from the pressures of the game.

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This was extremely evident at international level as Rupeni returned home to link up with the Fiji squad for matches against both the Māori All Blacks and the All Blacks, but never showed for either game. Knowing how vital he was to his side, then Flying Fijians coach Wayne Pivac didn’t punish Caucau for the mishap and instead was willing to give him another shot against Samoa a few weeks later, but after he once again didn’t show up the Fijian Rugby Union laid the hammer down and banned him from the national side for a year.

His return to the national side in May 2006 looked like it might be the start of him getting things back on track, but that all came crashing back down a few months later after he failed to show up for Agen’s preseason training camp. Rumours quickly circulated that it was another showing of ill discipline, but that didn’t end up being the case as instead Rupeni lay hospitalised back in Fiji.

Several weeks later he was given the green light to return to France where despite the increasing struggles off the field his impact when he actually made it on the field was as big as ever as he went on to win the Top 14 player of the season and top try scorer in his second season. Just when things were starting to go his way again he had yet another stroke of misfortune by losing his passport just one game after being called into the Pacific Islanders squad.

Then came 2007, the year when the Rupeni many of us remember sadly started coming into fruition. It started with a shockingly slow start to the season by his standards as he went on a try drought before testing positive for cocaine and being given a three month ban. The ban lifted just in time for the World Cup, but Caucau was not given the chance to repeat his heroics of 4 years prior as he was left out of the squad completely. Despite all the controversy and time out of the game he immediately reminded us of his brilliance on his return though by scoring a hat trick in a 33-0 win over Toulon.

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A few injuries came his way after that though, which alongside the previous hassles lead to Agen releasing him from his contract. He soon popped back up for Tailevu in Fiji and played his way back into European contention earning a trial with Leicester Tigers. I doubt the Tigers staff were surprised though when Caucau didn’t show and instead opted to remain in his homeland in order to train with the Fiji Sevens squad.

That didn’t work out for him either though as the Fiji Rugby Union decided they didn’t want to deal with any more of his antics so let Caucau fly back to France to sign a short term contract with Agen who’d come crawling back. The extended break had not been kind to Rupeni as he came back packing more pounds than ever, leaving many to doubt whether he’d have the fitness to last at professional level. He promptly answered those questions though by scoring 13 tries and helping the now Second Division outfit win promotion back to the Top 14.

The form of the big winger even convinced the national side to give him one last shot in a one off test against the Wallabies despite the fact he had not long stated he would no longer be available for selection. But as we’d come to expect of him by this point it wasn’t long until he’d ruined things for himself again after he once again failed to show up for Agen leaving the staff no choice but to fire him. Somehow though the memo had not been passed around France as he was picked up as a medical joker for Toulouse whom he made 13 typically surprisingly excellent appearances for. With that though his time in France was done, and with not many clubs willing to take a chance on the proven renegade it looked as though his career might be too.

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Full circle

He was handed a lifeline though as the province it all began at, Northland were more than willing to take a gamble on the now 120kg wing cum centre. He was a long way away from being the young lad who smashed all the Blues speed records a decade ago, but Rupeni did himself proud by not looking out of place on the pitch and more importantly not causing any issues off it. Being the suckers for punishment they clearly are though Agen handed Caucau the opportunity to round out his career with the club he’d played over 100 games and scored 65 tries for. He gladly obliged knowing this would likely be his last chance to salvage a bit of money for his family back home.

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After only 3 appearances he once again packed his bags though as he made the move away from the spotlights of professional rugby to finish up his career with a short stint at Army SC in Sri Lanka.

All in all Rupeni was one of the most gifted athletes the game has seen and if only someone had taken him under their wing who knows what sort of career we might be looking back on today.

Drop a line

This article was written and published by Ben Affleck of the Forgotten Rugby Battlers Facebook Page. It’s always interesting to read non-Fijians take on Caucau’s career. Leave a comment and let us know what you thought of the article.

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