The first ever visit of a Fijian touring side to Australia took place in the summer of 1952. This tour originally comprised 9 matches including appearances on Sydney Cricket Ground for a match against New South Wales and a historic first test against Australia on July 26th 1952. Although Fiji had played 28 tests since 1924 and won 16 of them, their previous opponents – Samoa, Tonga and the NZ Maoris – were not full members of the International Rugby Football Board. This was the first time that the Fiji national side played one of the leading rugby nations.
The Fiji team won their opening two tour matches against South Harbour and City of Sydney before drawing 14-14 on July 12th with a powerful New South Wales side containing 14 current or future Wallabies in front of a record crowd of 38,699 spectators. Following three further victories including a convincing 24-17 victory in Brisbane over a strong Queensland side with 11 current or future Wallabies, the Fijians amply demonstrated in the lead-up to the test their powerful running and superb handling, qualities that generations of spectators have enjoyed ever since.
The captain of the 23-man Fiji touring party was the breakaway forward 35-year old Apakuki Tuitava already capped nine times, but the undoubted star of the team was the sensational 21-year old winger Josefa Levula, the 6ft 2in and 14 stone Fiji 220-yard sprint champion. Chosen as one of the year’s best five players in the 1952 Rugby Almanack of New Zealand following his two tries in Fiji’s test against the NZ Maoris, Jo Levula had already scored 7 tries in his 6 matches on tour prior to the 1st test so he was definitely a player to be feared by the Wallabies.
The first test at the Sydney Cricket Ground on July 26th was played in rain and wind with a greasy ball on a muddy and soft ground which neutralised the Fijians’ outstanding ball skills. Despite a sensational opening to the match when the Fiji front row forward Sailosi Valewai scored after only 15 seconds following a forward rush, the Wallabies managed the conditions better and gradually took control of the match. After leading 9-3 at half-time, they emerged winners by 15-9, scoring 4 tries to Fiji’s 2 tries.
Just as importantly for the Australian Rugby Union as the quality of Fiji’s rugby, the tour was proving an enormous commercial success and so the decision was taken to add an additional test match at the end of the tour on August 9th at Sydney Cricket Ground. Prior to this second test match, Fiji beat Central Western 50-8 convincingly and Newcastle 28-24 in a very close match in which the two sides shared twelve tries. The stage was set for an engrossing tour finale.
Both sides initially picked unchanged teams for the 2nd test but the Wallabies made one enforced change, Ray Colbert playing the first of his six tests replaced Peter Rothwell at full back, and Fiji did likewise, Isikeli Cawa replacing Malakai Labaibure in the 2nd row. With twelve New South Wales players and three from Queensland the Wallabies were the favourites despite Fiji’s excellent overall tour record. Their team also contained some players destined for very impressive international careers. Few touring sides would have fancied facing Eddie Stapleton and Garth Jones, the star wingers on the 1953 Wallaby tour to South Africa; the captain John Solomon winning his eighth of 14 caps in the centre; Bob Davidson the prop who captained Australia on their 1957-58 tour to the United Kingdom and France; the second row pair Nicholas (later Sir Nicholas) Shehadie and Alan Cameron who played for Australia for many years; and a back row trio of Col Windon, Tony Miller and Brian Johnson who won 70 caps between them.
A new record crowd of 42,004 poured into the Sydney Cricket Ground for the test. It was the largest post-war crowd for an Australian international and the gate takings were £5,100 giving the Australian Rugby Union an estimated profit for the tour of at least £7,000.
The match was compelling throughout. After Stapleton on the right wing had scored an early try, the Fijian scrum half Suliasi Vatubua kicked a penalty goal and their prop Semi Ralagi scored an unconverted try to give Fiji a 6-3 lead. John Solomon dropped a goal but the Fiji full back Taniela Ranavue replied with a penalty goal to give Fiji a half-time lead of 9-6.
Shortly after half-time, Nick Shehadie scored a try after following up a well-placed crosskick from his fly half Murray Tate, but this try too was not converted highlighting a real weakness in the Wallaby armoury. Ranavue kicked a 40-metre drop goal six minutes later to give Fiji the lead, but the Wallaby scrum half Brian Cox scored another unconverted try after superb running by Windon and Stapleton to level the scores. With the match moving inexorably towards its close, the Fiji fly half Wame Salabogi broke through and scored a try under the posts easily converted by Vatubua.
With a lead of 17-12 and three minutes to go, Fiji only had to close out the match without conceding a converted try. Right on fulltime, the Wallabies launched a backline move through Solomon and Stapleton supported by the terrier-like flanker Col Windon who scored the crucial try in the right-hand corner. Eddie Stapleton had to kick a very difficult conversion to draw the match. He was unable to rise to the occasion which left Fiji unexpected but thrilled victors by 17 points to 15, a remarkable ending to an historic tour. The final scenes were memorably described by the distinguished journalist Phil Tressider in the Sydney Sunday Telegraph the next day:
“The exuberance of the Fijians after Stapleton had failed with his vital kick was unbounded. They whooped with joy, embraced each other and their Australian rivals, and gaily swapped jerseys. Then they made a big circle with the Australian players and linked arms as the band played Auld Lang Syne. The crowd gave the Fijians a tremendous ovation.”
- Rakavi 60 – Fiji Rugby Union (Fiji Times 1973)
- Rothmans Australian Rugby Yearbook 1983
- The Wallabies – Maxwell Howell, Xie and Wilkes (GAP Publishing 2000)
- They came to conquer Volume 1 – Maxwell Howell, Xie, Neazor and Wilkes (Focus Publishing 2003)
- Wallaby Gold – Peter Jenkins & Matthew Alvarez (Random House 1999 – 1st edition)
- Newspapers: Brisbane Sunday Mail – Fiji Times – Sydney Sun and Guardian – Sydney Sunday Telegraph
- Match programmes: Fiji v New South Wales & Fiji v Australia 2nd test
About the Author – A professional musician and arts administrator, Richard Steele has had a life-long love of sport. He has been on the committee of the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham since 2005.