Sport

Meet Ratu Peni Taloga Madanawa, First Fijian Rugby Player in Croatia

By 28 September 2019

September 28, 2019 - He grew up on an island with 30 inhabitants, a cyclone almost killed him, and he came to Zagreb without even knowing where it was. Meet Ratu Peni Taloga Madanawa, the first Fijian athlete in Croatia. 

Namely, Ante Buskulic writes for 24 Sata that 21-year-old Ratu Peni Taloga Madanawa is the first athlete from Fiji to play in Croatia. For those of you that don’t know,  Fiji is in the South Pacific some 16,500 kilometers and 12 time zones away. Peni calls it “the other end of the world”.

Thus, Peni traveled from one end to the other for the love of sport - and particularly, to play for Rugby Club Zagreb. 

Just how big rugby is in Fiji can be seen by the numbers. We know that football is by far the most popular sport in Croatia, and of its four million inhabitants, about 100,000 are registered football players. On the other hand, Fiji has a population of 910,000, of which 80,000 are registered rugby players!

“Like all the kids down there, I have been playing rugby since I was a kid. The high school leagues are very competitive, and if you are in the semifinals or finals, you know that you will get a scholarship in Australia, New Zealand or France, as the scouts of those countries come to those matches. But after high school, club games in Fiji are more for fun, to represent your district, and you can't achieve much. There is a lot of talent and only the best are selected to the national team. These others fear what they will be after they reach their peak and you have nowhere else to go. I was in that phase, too, so I went to Australia in 2017 to study as part of the Catholic group Youth With Mission, and in the middle of the year, I wanted something new, to try playing in Europe. I decided to search the internet, saw a site where clubs around the world were looking for players; I did not know about it until then. And there was an advertisement by RK Zagreb,” explains Peni of how he ended up here. 

“I had no idea where it was, I googled Croatia, I never heard anyone in Fiji say they were in Croatia. I only knew about Croatia because of the football World Cup, but I couldn't show it on the map of Europe. But I also saw that the islanders (so-called the inhabitants of Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific island states, for example) come here to play. I sent an email, got a response, looked at some clips about RK Zagreb on the Internet. Yes, I only applied to Zagreb, although some clubs from Australia wanted me. But I wanted a new experience.”

Peni had a very modest upbringing. 

“I come from Serua Island, and the population is 30-40! Mostly, my cousins, we're just a big happy family, haha.”

The only problem with that was finding a girlfriend. 

“Yes, for that you need to go to other islands. But Serua is close to the capital Suva, a 15-minute boat ride and about three hours by bus. And when there is low tide, we can also cross the ocean to the main island of Viti Levu. My girlfriend is German. We met in Australia and have a long-distance relationship. I'm a little closer to her now,” Peni said. 

Peni said his father left when he was young.

“My mother is a saleswoman and it is really hard for her to support me, my sister and two younger brothers. They are assisted by a grandfather, a former military figure, and my grandmother, who is a homemaker. I don't make money so far to send money home, but that time will come, I believe in myself.”

And how did Peni’s mother react when he said he was going to Croatia?

“I didn't tell her! I only told four people in Australia about this, and I called my mother from Zagreb to tell her! Her reaction? Uh, everyone was shocked, she was crying, aand she bombarded me with questions about where it was, I had to send her screen-shot maps of Europe… My friends asked me, 'Croatia? Are you sure there is any rugby there? Or just football?’”

Peni also explained his full name.

“Peni Talonga is my name and Ratu Madanawa is part of the name you inherit from your family. With Ratu labeled as being the heir to the chief."

Peni is Catholic, his first language is Fijian, and second is English, which children learn at school. Five years ago, the powerful cyclone Wilson hit Fiji.

“It missed my hometown, but I was in town, and it was nasty. A good part of the island was devastated, many people lost everything, and a piece of the roof came up and cut my arm. If he flew a little higher, it could have cut my neck.”

At the 2016 Rio Olympics, the Fiji rugby team won the first Olympic gold for the country.

“It was crazy; they closed the streets from the airport to the stadium, and everyone went out, singing, cheering.”

Peni financed his plane ticket to Zagreb.

“Yes, and it was very expensive, but I look at it as an investment that will pay off. I want to play in Europe, and this is a good chance for me.”

After playing games in Croatia, Peni rated the level of rugby in Croatia as four on a scale of 1-10. 

“When you play away (he's played in Split and Sinj, for example) there is a special feeling, the fans, about fifty of them, and the referee… great, haha! Otherwise, in Sinj, my club won, and I was told after seven years. It was nice to see how touched everyone was; some were crying.”

Peni has a contract with Zagreb for three months, but after two weeks here, he wished it was longer. The club is covering Peni’s apartment, where he lives with coach Jason Newton and teammate Damir Conci.

“I knew I couldn't live here from rugby, but I wanted to be the first person from my homeland to play in Croatia. And this is the right place for me, and I will recommend it to the Fiji boys,” Peni concluded.

Excerpts translated from 24 Sata, where you can also see photos and videos of Peni.

To read more about sport in Croatia, follow TCN’s dedicated page

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