It was a single photograph capturing Semi Radradra’s meteoric stride that brought him to the attention of rugby’s top scouts. The image marked the beginning of a transition from a very different life.
At the time, Radradra had been working down the Vatukoula gold mines in Fiji. Workers are known to be killed by rockfalls and, as a teenager, Radradra would risk his life for two dollars an hour.
‘It was tough, really tough, but I had to provide for my family,’ says Radradra, settling into his first interview since signing for Bristol Bears.
Semi Radradra is rugby union’s golden wonder but has come a long way to get to that point
‘I worked at the mines for seven months, before the 2011 Junior World Cup in Italy.
‘You dig holes, drill and collect gold. There was a lot of gold but the money was s***. You are scared when you go down, you know, because you never know if you’ll make it out alive again. You could go down maybe 100 metres. You jump in the lift with your helmet and overalls at 7am — and come back up at 3.30pm.
‘It’s a tough situation. It makes me appreciate being here now. It’s an honour. When life is hard, or the game is tough, I always think about home. I have to keep working.’
Radradra’s mining job came about by chance. He had just moved to the Fijian mainland after a local coach spotted him playing rugby in his village. The boat journey took almost two days.
Leaving behind his family on the remote island of Taveuni, Radradra would send his wages back home.
Radradra says he knew he would have to leave his homeland to further his rugby career
He had always been the family’s best farmer — establishing himself as the breadwinner because his father and eldest brother both suffered from a lung condition. Money was tight but Radradra’s sporting gift was the family’s ticket out of poverty. Overseas scouts noticed his talent and he signed his first rugby league contract in Sydney.
‘My professional journey started because of a photo,’ he says.
‘They had only seen a photo of me playing for Fiji U20s in Italy. It was just my legs! They liked the muscle on my legs and the way I ran!
‘I received a call from the Parramatta Eels saying: ‘Do you want to try rugby league?’ I said: ‘Yes, but I haven’t played it before and I’ve hardly watched it’. They said they would teach me so they booked me a flight over the next morning. That was my journey.’
Radradra scored 82 tries in 94 appearances and became one of the most feared players in the world. Prolific at both wing or centre. But it was back in the fields of Somosomo where he perfected his skills as a child.
The Fijian star rose to rugby fame after a photo of him playing for the under-20’s in Italy
‘Every young Fijian plays rugby,’ he says. ‘Maybe six years old… as soon as you can start running. We would just grab whatever we could find — an empty plastic bottle or a coconut — and use it as a ball after school.
‘My family are farmers. Mum and Dad. We live from the land and the sea. You’d go fishing in the morning — spear fishing on the reef, or on the boat if you want something bigger — and we would grow taro, cassava, cava. No machinery, but enough for the family to survive.
‘You don’t have to go to the supermarket. That was our source of income and I started working when I was six years old. As soon as you can hold a knife, you go straight to the farm. After school, my dad would say: ‘Make sure you plant 20 cabbages or 20 taro before you go to rugby’.’
Radradra scores for Bordeaux Begles in a European Rugby Challenge Cup clash
‘BRISTOL HAVE THE BEST BACK IN WORLD’
Nemani Nadolo – LEICESTER & FIJI STAR
I’ve played with and against Semi Radradra and the guy is a freak of nature. When he steps on to the rugby pitch, it’s like he’s 10-foot tall and bullet proof. He kills it every time he plays.
Under that shirt of his, he’s probably got five per cent body fat. There’s so much strength under his bonnet. He grew up with the village farm life in Fiji. People in Fiji don’t pick up weights until they’re 18. It’s all natural, raw power that he developed helping his dad as a kid.
The World Cup in Japan was his biggest stage yet. I’ll never forget watching him on TV in the pool game against Wales. The Welsh guys are a tough bunch and he was flattening them. He’ll beat the man in front of him nine times out of 10.
He’s got all the Fijian flair: offloads, one of the strongest fends out there and an outside step that will tie you in knots.
Semi’s a once in a lifetime player and there’s a case for saying he’s the best back in the world. Bristol are lucky to have him. Whatever money they’re paying him, it’ll be worth it.
Radradra was never short of mates to throw around a coconut or a plastic bottle. He is one of seven siblings and they would find a patch of land on their island which is known for its volcano and waterfalls. His talent always stood out.
‘I was fast,’ he says. ‘My cousins are the same age but they were small and I played up a grade. When I was 10, I could hear people talking about me, but I kept my head down. I overheard my uncles. They would say, ‘Oh, you can be good…. This and that’.
‘It was always in the back of my mind that one day I would leave for rugby. I was not good in school. All I was good at was farming and rugby. You leave home to support your family and that’s what motivates me. My dad has a lung disease and my brother was diagnosed with TB when he was 15.
‘Life back home is not easy, but it is a nice lifestyle. No traffic, no hassle… it’s peaceful. Our house was just big enough for everyone to sleep on the floor. In the villages in Fiji, we all sleep on the floor.
‘You hardly ever find a bed. If the family can afford a bed, then good, but if not you sleep on the floor. I miss that life every single day. Thinking about home motivates me to keep going.’
Did the family always have access to health care? Radradra points to indents on both of his muscular forearms as he answers.
‘I’ve broken both my forearms and used leaves for the healing,’ he says. ‘I never went to hospital. It took me three weeks to heal. You just put on the leaves and after four days it goes itchy, which means it has healed. The leaves are called vau [the English name is beach hibiscus] — from very small trees. It works.
‘We live from the land so you use traditional techniques. I use it a lot. Some grass, some leaves… they only grow in the Pacific and they’re like a detox. There’s a place you go to heal bones. There’s a place you go to heal nerves. We’re so blessed to have those gifts. Medicine is expensive and hard to find. Here you are so blessed with the hospitals and medication.’
Life at Bristol’s stunning new £12million high performance centre is a striking contrast. No expense has been spared and Radradra arrives as one of the league’s highest earners.
Three messages are printed on the wall of the new gym. Champions Cup: our ambition. England internationals: our programme. Home-grown players: our passion. Radradra is set to make his debut against Saracens when the season restarts in under two weeks and is targeting immediate success.
The Fijian will play for Bristol Bears as of next season after signing from Bordeaux Bègles
‘The boys, the coaching staff, the facilities… everything is here,’ he says, scanning his new surroundings.
‘We’re blessed to have this. It’s up to the boys if they want it. Everyone is on the same page: they want to win. I want to be part of that journey. This team is ready, man. Everyone here is keen to win the champ. Everyone has that mindset. I’m pumped. Everyone’s pumped.’
And there is plenty to remind Radradra of home. He has been living with fellow Fijian, Nathan Hughes, and has already stocked up their kitchen with coconut milk from the local supermarket.
Radradra came from humble beginnings but believes he can achieve anything in the sport
Tattoos are sprawled across his body to tell the story of the young boy from the fields of Somosomo. The body art includes a coconut leaf fan that reminds him of hot days with his grandmother, alongside Pacific Island weapons to represent the island’s tribal history.
‘There is a war club on my side. My ancestors were strong. Back in the day, if they wanted to go to fight for land they would leave the village on a canoe. They would carry a big wooden club to kill people.’
And across his chest, there is a saying in indelible ink that neatly sums up his journey so far. ‘It’s slang in my local dialect,’ he says. ‘It means, ‘You can do anything’.’
Semi Radradra was speaking on behalf of Nathan Hughes’ new clothing brand, Sweet City