13 Oct 2021

The man who makes Fijians fly

From Champions of the Pacific, 6:08 am on 13 October 2021

Fiji Rugby's fitness guru is backing the Drua to be among the fittest teams in Super Rugby Pacific.

Naca Cawanibuka has spent the best part of 15 years fine-tuning the country's top rugby talent into world class athletes.

As head of Fiji Rugby's strength and conditioning programme, he's attended two Rugby World Cups, played a key role in four World Sevens Series titles, and was instrumental in Fiji winning back to back Olympic gold medals.

Now he's taking on a new challenges as Head of Athletic Performance for the country's first ever Super Rugby team, the Fijian Drua.

Naca Cawanibuka.

Naca Cawanibuka. Photo: Fiji Rugby

A former Fiji 7s international himself, Cawanibuka said fitness was king.

"Once this Drua starts to settle and establish itself in Super Rugby, because the players are going to be so fit in a much higher competition, and a competition that will harness 
our playing style the Fiji way, then players up north are going to have difficulty coming back into the test team," he predicted.

"Because the Drua pretty much is going to be like the Sunwolves and Jaguares: it's going to be the Flying Fijians itself...Fiji Sevens on steroids."

A passion for sport and fitness comes naturally for Cawanibuka, who's father, Alifereti Cawanibuka, is a former Fiji national coach in volleyball, track and field and rugby sevens.

"So he coached (Waisale) Serevi and I when we played for the Fiji Sevens, so he is big on physical education and fitness training." he said.

"I kind of has access to all the programmes he had and because we had our own gym and field and all those kind of things that's what I was into the whole time apart from farming at home."

He almost went pro himself, after attracting interest during his time playing on the World Sevens Series.

"The last tournament of the World Series back in 2001 we played in Cardiff - that was the Wales Sevens - and I had interest coming in from Newport Dragons," he said.

"I was still a teacher trainee at our teacher's college. I was keen to jump across: like any young fella here you want to go across overseas and experience what it's like to be in a pro rugby environment.

"...but it didn't work out because at the end of that year we went to play in Durban, South Africa and then I got injured. I sport of came off the international scene altogether with multiple injuries and that kind of derailed the path."

Fiji celebrate their Olympic gold medal.

Naca Cawanibuka (2R bottom row) was a key figure in Fiji's two gold medal winning Olympic campaigns. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Cawanibuka went on to complete a Bachelor of Sport and Exercise Science at the University of the South Pacific and a Master of Professional Practice - High Performance Sport at Otago Polytechnic in New Zealand.

But the former Marist Brother's High School teacher credits his time in education for setting him on the way to a long-term career.

"It gave a skill-set in the teaching arena which allowed me to come through this pathway and I count myself really fortunate to have come through that because I have my mates who reached pro rugby, made a big big name for themselves (and) they're back on island but what do you lean back on after your rugby career? 

"So, for me, I think that academic pathway I took - even though I didn't make it in pro rugby - I think that's what has brought me this far."

Naca Cawanibuka joined Fiji Rugby in 2008 and is best known for his time working with the Fiji Sevens team - even filling in as head coach for the first two tournament after their first Olympic success in 2016.

He said the appointment of Ben Ryan as Fiji 7s head coach in 2013 proved to be a game-changer for both himself and the team.

"He is probably one of the very first head coaches who came in and worked with me hand and glove," he said.

"We just pushed the standards through and it's more powerful when it's coming from the head coach rather than the head conditioner on fitness standards. So he backed me on that and we made fitness a non-negotiable within the team for selection.

"And that has carried through with Gareth (Baber) who has come on board and we have made that a  rule of thumb and associated with physical fitness and conditioning was obviously the nutrition, the recovery element of it and discipline."

Faith is a major pillar in Fijian culture and Cawanibuka said it was no different in the sporting arena. 

"Our faith is strongly intertwined within our culture and within the rugby performance as well, and that has been realised by a lot of expat coaches who come in...they have found that this is the one thing that grounds our players and they have found it to be the common denominator," he said.

Fiji and Samoa pray before their pool clash in Vancouver.

Fiji and Samoa pray before a Vancouver 7s clash in 2019. Photo: Mike Lee - KLC fotos for World Rugby

"For us in our Fijian culture, and I guess for our Tokos from Tonga and our Usos from Samoa, it's this faith. It's something that has been passed down by our forefathers and it's something that has made us different but there is a lot of performance benefits and psychology behind it.

"It's probably the most untapped performance determinant for us in Fiji that we've started to unearth in the last seven to eight years, because what we've done is we've linked the faith together with our core values and principles with normal daily performance and behaviours around nutrition, skill, conditioning, mindset and just general behaviour and making them better people.

"Those concepts are universal but I guess the thing that we've been disconnected with in the past is the way it relates to the bible, which the boys read everyday anyway."

The Drua have announced 27 players so far in their inaugural Super Rugby squad, including Olympic gold medallists Napolioni Bolaca, Ratu Meli Derenalagi, Kalione Nasoko and Kitione Taliga.

Cawanibuka is confident Fiji's seven-a-side stars will be able to transfer their skills to the 15-man game.

"I think the history has proven a lot of our successful sevens players who went onto fifteens they became winners - they were real x-factor people in the fifteens programme," he said. 

"Obviously we will have to beef up a few of them, make them stronger. In terms of fitness there is no darker space in the world of rugby fitness than sevens because training in sevens is difficult and these players have come through that, so I don't think they will have a problem with the conditioning aspect. 

"It's the contact collision that they need to prepare for and the detail...obviously with set piece and all those kind of things."

Meli Derenalagi scores a try in the Olympic men's sevens final.

Naca Cawanibuka believes Fiji's 7s stars will adapt well to the fifteen-a-side game. Photo: www.photosport.nz

The Drua squad will assemble in Australia next month for the start of pre-season training and Cawanibuka said the focus will be on laying down the foundations for the season ahead.

"From the 1st of November there's about 15 weeks before kick-off and in that time obviously (there are) important pillars for the team in terms of culture, in terms of the playing group, the coaching staff getting to gel," he said.

"It's a new environment where everyone is coming in but (there are) non-negotiables like the relationships within the group and the identity and the purpose and the culture has to be right and physical conditioning: we have to have the big rocks in place and obviously the rugby components and that's what coaches are going to be putting their heads together to plan out. 

"For me, I've obviously I've started to talk to the players who have signed on and they know everyone is starting from zero and we will have to be in the best physical conditioning come Super Rugby time."

Super Rugby Pacific kicks off in February and Cawanibuka said the excitement and anticipation is already building in Fiji.

"You only have to see the crowds that rocked up for the Crusaders vs Chiefs teams that came here. That's how much Super means to Fiji and people are crazy, they have their own teams they're backing and following," he said. 

"Now they have their own Drua team that's going to be really interesting now because you've got a team that's rubbed shoulders with the best of the Wallabies and the All Blacks week-in week-out over a six month period. 

"There's nothing better than that is there, 15s rugby, so I think it only augers well for Flying Fijians and Rugby World Cup where all rugby programmes are measured."