Fiji great Seremaia Bai: “Cross Keys was some of the best rugby of my career” by Adam W Hunter
The humility with which Seremaia Bai recalls his life and career is striking.
He spent sixteen years as a professional rugby player of which a decade was spent in Europe: first in France with Clermont Auvergne and Castres, and then in the Premiership with Leicester Tigers. Along the way he represented Fiji and the Pacific Islanders on more than sixty occasions, and played at two World Cups. Back home he is a legend of the game.
But even after so many years playing at the highest level, he keeps a special place in his heart for his first club in Europe where he says he played some of the best rugby of his career: Cross Keys RFC.
After a stint in Australia he had broken into the Fiji 7s squad, then won his first cap for the 15-a-side team in 2000. An agent who represented other Fijian players in Wales contacted him.
“He approached me and gave me an opportunity to go there,” he told me. “I managed to get a contract for Cross Keys.”
The understatement with which he recounts the story – one of opportunity for himself, not a benefit to the rugby club – is typical of the man who has never seen himself as a superstar, but knew that rugby was the way he could support his family.
Bai grew up in a remote village where he had to walk 8km on the main road to school, often in bare feet. As a teenager he managed to get to Lelean Memorial School – a major rugby school in Fiji that boasts several future internationals among its alumni – but had to leave when he failed his national exams.
“That examination result is broadcast over the national radio,” he says with good humour. “Everybody can hear whether you passed or failed. Talk about stress!”
Embarrassed, he went back to live and work in his village for three years, walking two hours every morning to farm the sugar plantation. At 18 he had a chance to go back to school again, effectively on a rugby scholarship where as long as he played well he didn’t even have to go to any lessons. From there he was selected for Fiji u-19 and then got his chance in Australia.
It was on tour with Fiji u-19 in Zimbabwe that he began thinking that rugby could be the path for him.
“Life in the village is really tough, and there are not many opportunities: employment, work, formal education,” he tells me. “I didn’t have any qualifications and I knew that farming was hard, so I thought maybe I’ll just train.”
He knew he wasn’t as talented as some other players, but would wake up at 4am to run, and stay up late whilst the “talented ones were still relaxing and partying”. Whilst training he would often cry with the pain and frustration of how difficult growing up had been. The running was his therapy, and his stellar fitness, he says, is what set him apart.
Many players from the Pacific Islands struggle with the transition to life in Europe: the change of culture, pace and expectation something nobody prepares them for. When he moved to Wales in 2001 he had to leave behind his wife and young son, and the separation was a strain. The “Fijian village” of Pacific Islanders in Europe did not exist then, but Cross Keys welcomed him with open arms, and he settled quickly at home in Caerphilly. Not everything, though, was perfect.
“I saw snow for the first time,” he says with animated affection. “When you are young and travelling overseas you think, ‘Bring it on!’ but if I go back there my knees won’t handle the cold.”
On the field, the Cross Keys way suited him.
“I like how they approach the game,” he says. “They had just come up to the top division, and I’m grateful that every game I performed and played some of my best rugby.”
The season was a battle against top level opposition, but he never felt the pressure to be the saviour that so many islanders experience when they move abroad.
“I would try a bit of ‘Fijian magic’ once or twice a game,” he admits. “Sometimes we would get hammered by fifty points! But even if we were struggling I loved my time. The club was amateur, with some semi-pro players. I loved the people and made some good friends. They’re very passionate.”
At the end of the season – in the summer of 2002 – Bai went home to represent Fiji and, in what he describes as “one of the most challenging moments” of his career, broke his ankle. Unlike the bigger nations, the Fiji Rugby Union cannot afford insurance or the cost of treatment for its players.
“When we play for Fiji we’re not getting much money,” he tells me, later saying he might receive only £25 per game. “We had no insurance, and Fiji rugby didn’t want to pay for the operation. It took me ten months to get back to playing.”
His time at Cross Keys was over, and he eventually returned with blood still dripping from his stitched wound in a club game in New Zealand. The experience strengthened his resolve to take his rugby career seriously, as he realised it could all have fallen apart in that instant. And he sympathises with islanders who prefer to stay with their clubs rather than go home to play for their countries when the call comes.
“If you get injured you might lose your contract, or they can cut your salary by 20 or 30%,” he says. “Fans say, ‘Your country is more important than clubs’, but this is not England or the All Blacks where players are getting paid £25,000 in one test match. When you have a family you have a decision to make.”
Bai’s dedication to his career, his fitness and his family saw him recover. He chose to stay with his new club rather than represent Fiji at the 2003 World Cup in Australia – a team that contained a handful of stars in Seru Rabeni, Nicky Little and Rupeni Caucaunibuca – because he needed the security for his family and time to rehabilitate. From there came the spells in France and England, and fifty-three Fiji caps, eight for the Pacific Islanders, and the honour of playing at the World Cup in 2007 and 2011.
These days he lives in Fiji, and has founded Rugby Academy Fiji to train and educate the next generation of players, and prepare them for the opportunities and challenges ahead.
And he repeats his feelings of gratitude for the chance to play for Cross Keys nearly twenty years ago: the club that gave him the first of many great experiences in Europe.
“When you are that age coming from Fiji it’s an opportunity for you, rather than sitting around doing nothing,” he says. “So I took it with both hands. I wouldn’t change a thing.”