Rookie Class Review 2019

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2019 was a big year for Fijian Rugby. Every year brings in a some new faces to first class Rugby whether it be 15’s, Sevens or League. 2019 was no different and we were blessed with some exciting new talent so we’ll go through our top rookies and review their seasons but also look ahead at what we can expect from these players.

Who qualifies as a rookie?

While the NRC is a good starting point for the local players, we thought we’d exclude them from rookie status as they would be classed rookies once they sign contracts with overseas clubs. We have however included the Fijian Drua players who were selected in the Fijian Latui as we believe Global Rapid Rugby is a step up from the NRC competition.

For instance, even though Frank Lomani played in the NRC in 2018, he doesn’t qualify as a rookie in 2019 as he also represented Fiji against France and the PNC making 2018 his rookie season (according to rakaviti.com anyway)

We that said it’s never easy picking the best of a talented bunch of players so we’ll go through who we thought were our most notable rookies and rate their first seasons in first class competition.

Aminiasi Tuimaba (Fiji Sevens)

Making his debut for Fiji as part of the 2018/2019 World Sevens Series, Aminiasi has impressed with his speed, physicality and brutal defense. He has become a core member for the team and was a constant menace on the wing in 2019. An impressive first season for the Vio Islander as he was also nominated for the World Sevens rookie of the year award.

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Tuimaba topped the tryscoring for Fiji with 46 ahead of Alosio Naduva on 37. He was named in the 2019 Sevens Dream Team alongside three other Fijians.
Moving forward Tuimaba will come into contention for a spot at the Tokyo Olympics and on early 2020 form should be there barring injury or suspension.

We see him having another big season which will possibly result in selection for the Drua, Latui or even an overseas contract.

Vilimoni Botitu (Fiji Sevens)

A graduate of the Fiji Under 20’s 15’s side, Botitu had an impressive first season which resulted in being awarded the Sevens Series Impact player of the year. The award is testimony to his skillset and workrate. Botitu, who plays as a centre in the expanded version of the game, showed a soft touch, good decision making, solid defense and offloading ability.

Vili was selected in the Sevens Dream team alongside Alosio Naduva, Jerry Tuwai, Tuimaba and Meli Derenalagi. We see Botitu as a certainty for the Tokyo Olympics barring injury or suspension.

Unfortunately we don’t see Botitu staying on the circuit too long as his skillset and rugby IQ will attract overseas clubs in both Rugby and League. His defensive abilities and 15’s experience make him an easy transition into a professional player.

Meli Derenalagi (Fiji Sevens)

Meli or also known as “The White Shark” had an outstanding first season for the Sevens side as he rose from a shy lanky kid who looked a little hesitant on the rugby pitch to one of the teams leaders and match winners by seasons end.

His superior offloading ability and field awareness quickly became known and by seasons end he was named in the Sevens Dream team and awarded the World Sevens Rookie of the year.

Derenalagi has an offloading ability similar to Leone Nakarawa and is already in the sights of overseas Rugby clubs. It won’t be long before we see him transition into the Flying Fijians 15’s side at either lock or flanker. We definitely think Meli is a future candidate for the Fiji captaincy.

Brandon Wakeham (Bulldogs, NRL)

Brandon made his international debut for Fiji against Lebanon in a standout performance that left little doubt as who was the future halfback for the Bati. Brandon displayed excellent pass selection, pin point kicking and game management having a hand in 3 tries and scoring one himself in a night out against the team he was also eligible for through his mother.

7 days later Wakeham found himself making his surprise first grade debut for the Bulldogs and impressed by steering his side to an upset over the Cronulla Sharks. Brandon made another two appearances for the Bulldogs in 2019 and guided an understrength Fiji Bati side to wins over Samoa and PNG for a undefeated Fiji Bati season.

He was nominated alongside Viliame Kikau for the Golden Boot international Rugby League player of the year award. Going forward we see Wakeham fighting to nail down a halves spot in 2020 and eventually becoming a regular in the NRL and a long term leader for the Fiji Bati.

Johnny Dyer (Flying Fijians)

It may seem odd to throw Johnny Dyer in the rookie category but he’s only played for the Drua prior to 2019. Dyer’s been a consistent performer for the Drua since it’s inception and one of Fiji’s best at all levels. 2019 saw him take that same level of quality into the Rapid Rugby games and backed it up with a man of the match performance against the Barbarians for the Flying Fijians.

Moving forward we see Dyer progressing into a must have for Fiji at either flanker, number 8 or off the bench for impact. He has just signed with Racing 92 in the French Top 14.

Mikaele Ravalawa (Dragons, NRL)

Mika was an unlikely starting winger for the Dragons in early 2019 but after a string of impressive trials he was thrown a jersey in round 1 and went on to make 19 appearances in his first season as an NRL player.

Blessed with power and a handy offload, the Galoa natives best traits apart from finishing are his dummy half running and gaining valuable metres for his forwards.
Ravalawa also represented Fiji against Lebanon at centre and going forward will most likely hold a centre or wing spot heading into the 2021 World Cup.

Maika Sivo (Eels, NRL)

One of the best moments for any Fijian in 2019 was hearing a packed Bank West stadium chant “SIVO, SIVO”. Momi villager Maika replaced the hole in the heart of the Parramatta fans after losing favourites Semi Radradra and Jarryd Hayne in successive seasons.

Debuting in round 1, Maika quickly became a cult hero and went on to score the most tries in the NRL regular season with 20, just two shy of the rookie tryscoring record held by Suliasi Vunivalu.

Sivo is a star now and has gained the attention of Rugby Union clubs aswell with his rugby background. His contract expires in 2022 and could become another convert to the 15 man game.

Ratu Naulago (Super League)

British Army recruit Ratu Naulago was given a temporary release from active duty to pursue his Rugby League opportunity with Hull FC in early 2019 and it paid off after a handful of impressive trials. Ratu was offered a full time contract with the club and it wouldn’t take long for the Hull faithful to see what he could do.

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In his first season for the Black and Whites, Naulago crossed the stripe 13 times with numerous breathtaking, long range specials. If his highlight reel after one season is anything to go by, then Ratu has a very bright future ahead of him.

With the Fiji Bati losing Suiliasi Vunivalu to Rugby in 2021, Naulago would be an adequate replacement for the World Cup year if he chooses to play for Fiji. Given his impressive early form, the English Lions could very well use someone like him in their backline.

Sevu Reece (Super Rugby)

Our pick for Rookie of the year is Crusaders winger Sevu Reece. An unlikely call-up after a season ending injury to fellow Fijian Manasa Mataele gave Sevu his chance to shine and after a string of impressive performances, Sevu was quickly becoming a cult hero and had the attention of the then All-Blacks coach Steve Hansen.

In his first full season Sevu went on to top the try-scorers list with 15 and was awarded the Super Rugby Rookie of the year award.

Gifted with blazing acceleration, speed and ability for big hits in defense and attack on top of his awareness and finishing ability. Sevu is another in a long list of Fijian wingers to play for the Crusaders including Jone Macilai, Nemani Nadolo, Marika Vunibaka and Vilimoni Delasau.

His year got better with selection in the All-Blacks World Cup squad where he would nail down the starting winger spot and a go-to man for the side.

Reece has a long career ahead of him and after one season is already rated one of the best wingers in World Rugby. Look for him to feature for the All-Blacks in the years ahead.

Tell us what you think

That’s our list of the most notable Fijian rookies to finish off the decade. Tell us who your favourite was in the comments below or check out our list of Fijians to look out for in 2020

Quick Fact

2019 wasn’t the only season two Fijians topped the tryscoring list in the NRL and Super Rugby in the same year. While last years feat was impressive and a first as both Reece and Sivo were rookies, Waisake Naholo and Semi Radradra topped the list for their respective competitions in 2015.

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