By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist
Have you ever heard of a seven-dollar note? No, neither had I until what is now my new favorite sporting souvenir was literally handed to me by a shopkeeper in Fiji over the weekend. And all it cost me was $3.50.
If things are already getting confusing, let me simplify and backtrack a little. I am currently in Fiji on a brief family vacation, for the following reasons: It is a jaw-droppingly wonderful place, the people here are the happiest on earth (according to a 2014 survey) and, if you live in Los Angeles, it is actually as cheap as flying to most American destinations if you’re booking late for a Memorial Day weekend trip.
Fiji, a breathtakingly beautiful collection of islands in the South Pacific, is sports-obsessed, and the virtual entirety of that obsession is rugby. Fijians love it. Every other product in the supermarket seems like it is endorsed by the national team. Kids play rugby on the street, in the park, at the pool, at school, out of school and on the beach.
Despite a population of just under a million, Fiji is proof that such a deep love for one activity leads to brilliant results. In rugby sevens, the shortened version of the game that has been part of the last two Olympics, Fiji punches well above its weight.
In the 2020 Tokyo Games rescheduled to last summer, the men’s squad clinched gold for the second straight time, trouncing rugby heavyweights New Zealand, Australia and Great Britain along the way. The outpouring of national joy was off the charts, so much so that the government said to heck with the centuries-old norms of currency dominations, and went with lucky No. 7.
The Fijian seven-dollar note is a thing of beauty too, colored in gold (of course), featuring the image of the victorious Olympic squad singing the national anthem at the medal ceremony and captain Osei Kolinsau looking skyward. The current exchange rate to U.S. dollars is 2:1, hence the $3.50 valuation.
For someone who nerds out about sports as much as I do, unexpectedly receiving the banknote as change in a hotel gift shop was a truly wondrous development. This is a place where you can strike up a conversation about sports with absolutely anyone you meet, as long as it is about rugby. The local newspaper had 14 pages on Saturday, all of it dedicated to the game the locals love.
In 22 years as a sportswriter, I’ve been extraordinarily lucky to witness some of the world’s greatest events, but there have also been times when other, more local experiences, have either landed just before or just after my trip to a country. For example, on a work visit to Japan several years ago, the biggest sumo wrestling tournament of the year began just hours after I had departed.
This time, however, I hit the jackpot. Our arrival in Nadi coincided with game day for the Fijian Drua, a club comprised almost entirely of the Fiji national team squad, and which plays against franchises from Australia and New Zealand in Super Rugby – one of the strongest club competitions in the world.
I watched at a bar surrounded by the warm and welcoming locals, as the Drua mounted a furious comeback before losing a nail-biter, 35-34, against the visiting Chiefs team from New Zealand, which featured several members of the mighty All Blacks.
In a country where rugby is king, everything else stops. Anyone seeking a television set not tuned into the game on Saturday was out of luck. At the sold-out Churchill Park stadium, the cameras occasionally zoomed in on Voreqe Bainimarama, Fiji’s prime minister and the man who ordered those rugby-themed banknotes, sitting in the stands.
Told you it was serious stuff.
In the days since, it has become clear that even possessing a little rugby knowledge is fuel for an instant conversation starter here. Fiji is a supremely kindhearted place, the weather is balmy, you get compliments if you wear colorful flowery tropical shirts, and friendly chatter is a given.
This is paradise as if it was invented by a sports junkie – all the sandy beaches, sunny skies, crystal blue waters and occasional palm trees in place – but with a sporting theme running through daily life that is ever-present.
The vacation is coming to an end, but Fiji’s love of rugby never will. And the seven-dollar note, obviously, is coming home with me. Worth as much as a cup of coffee, but so, so much more.
Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider Newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.
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