It’s selfie time at Hampton Court. The tourists at one of Britain’s most historic landmarks are suddenly sidetracked and rather gobsmacked by something unexpected as a group of 31 green-trousered, blazered behemoths gather in front of the Palace gates.
This is a must-have snap. After all, it is not every day you find the Fijian rugby team singing a beautiful hymn together at a national monument. As the squad concludes their singing to huge applause and begins to fragment, the day-trippers largely home-in on just one man for a picture.
For even in this land of giants, Nemani Nadolo, at 6ft 5in and nigh on 20 stone, exudes a rare, almost startling presence. “A massive boy, just massive,” as his team-mate Sunia Koto likes to put it.
Nadolo just leans down and smiles, casting a shadow over his selfie snappers. He is the model of politeness. Charming, chatty, modest and warm. Ah, if only these English tourists knew they were being seduced by a monster… because this is the man tipped as the one most likely to ruin the start of the biggest sporting knees up in London since the 2012 Olympics. Stuart Lancaster’s men kick off the World Cup tonight at Twickenham with England expectant yet slightly trepidatious about the unpredictable challenge that awaits them from the popular Pacific islanders who look better organised, better prepared and laden with more thrilling back-line talent than ever before. The one whose gifts alarm them most is the 27-year-old Nadolo, a star of the Super Rugby tournament with NZ-based Crusaders.
As he natters away amiably in the sunshine, you can see why he reckons he’s just a big teddy bear away from the park but out there, something possesses him. He’s learned not just to run past players but to run over and through them. Remind you of anyone? Yes, but this bloke is a stone heavier and even quicker than Jonah Lomu. Being Fiji’s supposed answer to the Samoan-born All Black Lomu has been Nadolo’s lot since he was a hulking Australian-based teen going by the name of Ratu Nasiganiyavi and with such potential that every Aussie union and league club coveted this cousin of Wallabies star wing Lote Tuqiri. Only, as one awed observer noted back then: “This bugger makes Lote look like Danny De Vito.”
Yet it is only now, after a long, winding and occasionally depressing road that this sporting nomad is settled and living up to all that original outlandish potential. And having ditched the surname of his rugby-playing father Isei, who walked out on the family home, he is doing it all as Nemani Nadolo, having taken the maiden name of his mother Bale, the woman he unashamedly calls his rock.
There were times on his rugby travels from Fiji to New Zealand, via Australia, Japan and France, when Nadolo’s blinding starbursts of talent came hand in hand with periods of distraction, lack of motivation and indiscipline.
Back in Britain, he recalls how the last time he spent any length of time here four years ago, it culminated in him feeling as if he couldn’t plummet any lower when, in debt after an ill-fated career stopover at Bourgoin in France, his five-month contract with Exeter Chiefs ended after a night in the police cells when he was caught drink-driving. “I got in trouble with the law and that’s probably always going to be brought up alongside my name every time someone talks about me and England,” he shrugs. “I was just a kid and the most important thing was that I learned from my mistakes.”
He had to. Quickly. Having grown up in Australia after the family relocated to Brisbane for Isei’s rugby career, Nadolo had always felt he had to be the man of the family in the tough days after his dad left. So, after the Exeter debacle, much of the money he earned at Japanese club NEC Green Rockets was sent back to support his family. Stability in Japan and a reconciliation with his dad led to the Crusaders snapping up this fully-matured rocket and now Nadolo sounds almost a wee bit embarrassed that he is being touted as a potential star in his first World Cup.
“I’m probably my own worst critic so I haven’t really been reading the media. And that Lomu stuff? I’m happy to ignore all that because it’s not like its something new to me. I mean, if you’re a big, fast winger then you’re always going to be compared to the big fella.”
He laughs when I suggest Australian rugby must now see him as the diamond that got away, especially after he had played U20 rugby at national level for them.
“Opportunities just didn’t arise for me to play for the Wallabies but I was fortunate that I could play for Fiji and I don’t regret it at all.”
Coach John McKee’s 2015 Fiji, he says, are pushed by the exceptional individual gifts of players now playing at the game’s highest level but, more than that, by a brotherhood, a special spirit which makes them “our people’s team”.
“We’re playing for the people back home. Some have forked out money out of their own pockets to fund us, so we don’t think about money. Some of the guys here pay their own air fares to come back but we want to. We do it because we love the country.”
”We’re not here to promise the world, but we’re here to win and we’re here to make our country proud,” says Nadolo. And just maybe, we can shock the world…”
Who is going to argue with him?