Soldier brings fighting spirit to England

Soldier brings fighting spirit to England
Julian Savea of the New Zealand All Blacks poses for a portrait in Hyde Park following a New Zealand All Blacks media session at the Royal Garden Hotel on November 4, 2014 in London, England.

Lance Corporal Semesa Rokoduguni, a Fijian tank driver in the British Army, lines up to play rugby for England in London this afternoon.

This is a magnificent moment in the soldier's life. "It's a massive thing," he says, "especially on Remembrance weekend. It's not just representing England, my family and Bath Rugby Club - it's representing the whole armed forces in Afghanistan."

Roko, as his team-mates know him, is a man for all perspectives.

He has fought, and has seen a colleague's legs blown off by stepping on a landmine in Helmand Province. His first call, he says, will be the Army over and above sport the moment his regiment asks him.

But while he lives in barracks, he has the blessing of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards to play professional rugby. And he makes his debut for England in the fiercest of all contests, against the world champions, the New Zealand All Blacks, at Twickenham.

It could hardly have been more poignant.

Britain, and I imagine anywhere with Commonwealth links, is bedecked in poppies signifying the anniversary of the end of World War I, at the llth hour on the llth day of November. The Poppy Day appeal proceeds go to servicemen brutalised in the wars that we still, sadly, have.

Roko's father, a brother and a sister all are still on active service. His is a military background and, having left his native island eight years ago to enlist at the age of 19, he qualifies for England on residency.

By freak coincidence, the direct opponent for this tank driver from Fiji happens to be another warrior of Polynesian descent. And Julian Savea, whose family hail from Samoa, is so big and powerful the All Blacks call him "The Bus".

Some might suggest that Savea could have done with a spot of military discipline before he was arrested and charged with domestic violence against his partner last year.

The disciplines of rugby and the army have some correlation in Rokoduguni's experience.

The drills have to be sharp. The dependency on others has to be strong. The precision requires discipline.

"The boys ask me about army stuff all the time," Roko told journalists this week. "I tell them, 'Boys, it's like this: When you're out on the rugby field and you get something wrong, miss a tackle or a chance to score, you can always come back and get it right the next time.'

"But out in Afghanistan, you can't afford to make mistakes because a mistake might mean somebody loses their life."

Stuart Lancaster, the head coach of English rugby, has put his latest recruit through immense pressures in training this past week.

"He's probably one of the least nervous players in the squad," the coach observed. "We've put the players in a lot of pressure in various scenarios - I haven't seen Roko make an error."

That in turn leads the coach to reason that the army man with only two years' exposure to top pro club sport is ready for action in the face of the best team on earth, and in front of a full house of 82,000 at the home of Rugby Football Union.

The scenario, as Lancaster put it, got me thinking.

We are accustomed to watching foreigners all the time in English football. None looks bigger, or gets paid more, than Yaya Toure at Manchester City.

The Ivorian is a physical colossus, and such a gifted man that he is able to rescue his team from his own mistakes.

Last Wednesday in the Champions League, Toure "switched off" and let the opponent he was marking (as it happened, a fellow Ivory Coast player Seydou Doumbia) steal a yard on him. Doumbia was allowed a free header from a free kick, and scored.

Six minutes later, Toure also scored. He curled in a free kick from 23 metres that no goalkeeper would have saved.

But then, it unravelled for Toure. He ended up cuffing an opponent round the face, and was rightly sent off.

By all accounts, the top brass at Man City, those in Abu Dhabi who pay this player over £200,000 every time he sets foot on a field, want answers. How come Yaya Toure is so inconsistent, so unpredictable?

Let's face it. The English, in so many of the sports they invented, now are mass importers of talents. In the Premier League, seven out of every 10 shirts are worn by hired mercenaries.

In rugby, which is just growing as a moneyed sport, England is more than happy to have a Fijian soldier in the ranks.

Toure has been having a distracting time. He probably doesn't know what to do with all that money the sheikhs throw at him. He may have grown satiated, he may be tired, or he might plain and simple be a human being.

In June, when Yaya and his brother Kolo Toure were on duty with the Ivory Coast at the World Cup in Brazil, news reached them that their younger brother Ibrahim had died of cancer.

The pair did what was asked of them and played on until their country exited the World Cup.

Since then, Yaya Toure has been disturbed by Russian "fans" making racist taunts in Moscow, and by "social media" abuse on the same lines.

He does not have Rokoduguni's war grounding.

Finally, one thinks of the late Keith Miller, a World War II pilot and later a great Australian Test cricketer. Miller was asked to compare the pressures of flying over Germany to playing in the Ashes. He replied:

"Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your backside. Playing is not."

Go to it, Roko.

This article was first published on Nov 8, 2014.
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