Hard work pays off – in both kinds of fields

NZ Rugby World team

Author short introduction. Three to five lines of brief description.

He’s instinctively working the Colin ‘Pinetree’ Meads model, only in an entirely different context. And Fijian international rugby star Seremaia Bai is making a real success of it – not just for himself.

Seremai Bai
Seremai Bai

For while Meads trained in his King Country paddocks for his superlative rugby feats back in the day, and went back to farming after active rugby playing, Seremaia Bai is operating in the new world of professional sport. Which is not all rosy; and which has its own attendant challenges.

As Bai observes, “The average professional career of a Fiji rugby player is approximately ten years. But while so many young payers have dreams, only two per cent make it to the professional level. What happens to the other 98 per cent?’

To address this question, Bai has started the Agro-Rugby Programme. Its vision: Through rugby, to educate young players, through discipline and by holding on to cultural values. To use agriculture as a vehicle for rugby preparation – mental and physical. This is underpinned with entrepreneurial training and coaching for pre, during and post rugby career.

AgriRugby farming team in taro field
AgriRugby farming team in taro field

In Bai’s programme, rugby training takes place twice a week for one and a half hours, with additional weight training. Farming takes place for three half days a week, with physical work in the fields for half that time, and half taken up with education in financial skills and entrepreneurship.

To this end, Bai has bought a substantial farm block in rural Nausori, just outside Suva. The young participants are helping plant 2,000 taro plants per month. They’ll be ready for harvesting in October-November this year. “We also need to clear more land to prepare for planting more taro, cassava and ginger.”

It’s hard yards as evidenced by the sweating young men, fine figures all, wielding machetes and other agricultural tools. It’s living testimony to Bai’s belief in instilling self discipline. It’s a tight ship: foul language is not permitted.

Bai met up with Pacific Trade Invest’s New Zealand Trade Commissioner Glynis Miller at the Agro-Rugby farm. He and his rugby-playing learner farmers will soon be looking at export markets for their produce, and for further investment in the project – and that’s where Pacific Trade Invest can help. It has offices in Australia, China, New Zealand and Switzerland promoting entrepreneurial exports from the Blue Pacific, and investment into the region.

Rugby has taught Bai everything: “That there is life after a successful rugby career if you have the vision and passion to pursue your dreams other than rugby. To start a business, for example.”

He’s learned the hard way. He played professional rugby for 16 years. He made his international debut for Fiji in 2000, in a famous match against Japan which Fiji won 47-22. In that same year, he was also capped for playing test matches against Canada, Italy, Samoa, and the USA. In 2001 he played Samoa and Tonga (twice). In that second match against Tonga he broke his ankle, which was a setback he could ill afford. The injury normally takes three to four months to recover from, however, it took ten months of gruelling rehab which was all on Bai’s own bat, without financial support. But he had the sheer determination to get back into the game; and in 2002, he joined Southland for the New Zealand National Provincial Championship, and also toured the Northern Hemisphere with the Fiji national team.

The thing with professional rugby careers – if they can be achieved at all – come with a boom-and-bust cycle. Which Bai is determined to break.

Seremai Bai thumbs up with Glynis Miller
Seremai Bai thumbs up with Glynis Miller

He points out, “Players who play local club level have the passion. Rugby talent come naturally to Fijians.

“Rugby players can go from nil income to an annual average of US$90,000. The contract fee income for professional Fijian rugby players is on average around US$10,000 per month.

“In France there are around 400 Fijian rugby players playing club level. They can earn US$1.2M annually, yet they have next to nothing to show for it.

“But post-rugby employment opportunities for our players do not exist. We end up back in the village with nothing to show for our rugby fame and legendary status.

“Professional Fijian rugby players return home broke – financially, mentally and spiritually.

“I intend to change that for the next generation of rugby players.”

Bai’s Agro-Rugby operation was established in February 2022 as a cooperative and successfully registered as Eastern Saints cooperative in May 2022 . There’s also a mobile rugby academy, Kids Club for children 5-13 years, juniors 14-18 years, girls 16-18 years – and of course the ‘open division’ for the really serious players under the Eastern Saints Rugby Club.

The mobile academy includes a Wellness Breakfast programme, which is held fortnightly at Albert Park. Participants bring produce and contributions to a basket, which is then sold. Those funds go to buying taro crops, organic liquid fertiliser, spray tanks, farm implements, power tools like chainsaws.

Bai has sent a small cohort of players to New Zealand and to Japan on rugby scholarships, the average age of the players being 17 years.

Bai knows where he’s come from. He was born in  Nausori, Fiji, to a single mom. He dropped out of school at 15, with no real formal education. He’s married, with five children. And he got to play international rugby for Fiji. But most importantly, he knows where the young people he’s mentoring, can go.

With the Agro-Rugby Academy, Bai is committed to creating a safe environment for the young players. Of those who signed up at the academy, 15 remain as a committed core group. “The majority of youth in Fiji have no formal education,” Bai notes., “Hence they look to rugby as a way out of poverty.”

“Farming is seen as a poor man’s job. Everyone wants an office job. No one wants to do farming.”

Except for Bai, with his vision for Agro-Rugby  he’s  merging three complimentary skill sets, agricultural work, rugby and entrepreneurship – and turning that into a lasting legacy. One of financial security.

As Bai says, “Success is when opportunities and hard work converge.”

Just like it did for that towering figure of world rugby, Colin Pinetree Meads.

Share this Article
Facebook - Share
Twitter - Share
LinkedIn - Share
Email - Share