Fijian International, Ben Nakubuwai, Looks Back On His Career, And Assesses His First Season With Salford
Born Petero Benjimin Nakubuwai, but known for convenience purposes, over the years by everyone as Ben, the Fijian World Cup international now seldom hears his first name other than from within his close family, whilst, although being of Fijian heritage, he grew up in the small town of Leeton, NSW, Australia.
“I was born in Fiji but grew up in Australia, so most of my memories of Fiji came from our visits back there, to visit the rest of our family,” he remarks. “My grandmother, and most of my family still live there.”
Although in the rugby league territory of New South Wales, the Riverina area, in which Leeton is situated, is nearly three hundred miles inland from Sydney, and so it was first with football that he became involved, at the age of six, followed by rugby union, twelve months later.
“My dad just took me one day to a rugby union training session, and I then stayed with it right through to the age of fifteen,” he recalls. “Once I started playing, I picked it up pretty quickly, and, even though league was the bigger sport, it wasn’t until I was fourteen that I started playing that, when my friends at school invited me to do so.”
Like so many others, in those early days of playing he was against older and bigger lads, but he had sufficient size of his own to be able to cope with that, even though he started life as a prop forward, before graduating to the second row, later.
The change of code is always more difficult for a forward than for any other position to cope with, and for the first season or so he confesses he really struggled to adapt.
“I just used to follow the ball everywhere, which is what you do in union in order to be at hand to form the ruck,” he explains, “and for a while I was playing both versions, with league on the Saturday, initially for the Leeton Raiders before transferring to the Yanco Wamoon Hawks, and then union with the Leeton Phantoms on the Sunday.”
Strangely enough he did not find it overly confusing switching from one code to the other mainly because, in such a small town, the two clubs existed cheek by jowl, with the vast majority of players doubling up every week throughout the season.
By the time he was sixteen he was experiencing, once again, the challenge of packing down, this time in league, as a prop against players up to two years older than himself. This was certainly going to stand him in good stead, as twelve months earlier he had been approached by Melbourne Storm, and had agreed to join their Youth set up.
“I got a letter inviting me down to join one of their Scholarship Camps, to which they would fly lads from around the whole of Australia, and New Zealand, for week-long camps of rugby, and I did that for a couple of years, before signing for them at the age of seventeen,” he recounts.
“I finished school on the Monday, packed my things on the Tuesday, and flew down to join them for their pre-season training. It seemed really hard at first, compared with either of the amateur clubs I had played for back home, and it was also much more structured.”
Just as he would have expected, he started off playing with the U18s in the SG Ball Competition, and the following season moved up to join the U20s though he had to wait a further season to get his first game at that level. Once he did break into the team, however, he played two full seasons until 2016, when he moved up north to join the Gold Coast Titans, where he played in the reserve team and for the Tweed Head Seagulls, which was one of the Titans’ feeder clubs.
His perseverance and dedication were eventually rewarded in the last game of the season with his NRL debut, against Parramatta.
“I started on the bench and then came on to join the front row,” he relates. “I loved it and it really was a dream come true, because I had always wanted to play in the NRL. We didn’t win but I was fortunate enough to score a try.
“It came from a cut-out ball intended for one of our back rowers, but I thought it was coming to me, so I stuck my hand out, juggled it, spun out of a tackle, and was able to ground it.”
His next outing, against the Sydney Roosters ended rather more ignominiously with his being knocked out in the second half.
Most surprisingly for one so young – his still being only twenty – Ben’s international career had also been developing, after his being contacted by the Fijian management to inform him that he was in contention for selection.
“I hadn’t even played against men before, so it was a real shock to me,” he confides. “I went to the training sessions and it was a really good feeling at the start just to be part of it, but then I was selected to play against Papua New Guinea, in Sydney. We didn’t win, and I didn’t get much game time, but being involved was special.”
That, however, was only the start, because coming up hard and fast was Fiji’s involvement in the World Cup, for which he was required to undertake trials. As we all know his involvement was cemented within the giant killing Fijians, who pipped none other than New Zealand, to make a semi-final showdown with Australia.
“The World Cup was awesome; the best experience anyone could have,” he enthuses. “The really tough, pre-tournament training was held in Fiji, and gave me the opportunity to return back there and meet up with the rest of my family.
“In the end it was a great achievement for us to get to the semi-final, which was as a result of our bonding together so well. Beating New Zealand was the highlight of the whole tournament for us. I gained a lot of confidence from the experience, as I was given a lot of game time, after I had anticipated that I would probably only get a couple of runouts.
“I think we all would have liked to have had another chance to play against the Australians, because there were a number of things we would have liked to have improved upon.”
The end of the 2017 season saw Ben in the most unusual position of having an international career in full flow, but with no club with whom he was affiliated, but this quickly changed with our Head Coach, Ian Watson, filling the void by bringing him to the A J Bell.
“I had had a couple of other offers to come over here,” he divulges, “but my initial thoughts had been that it was too far from home. In fact, I still needed a lot of convincing from my parents before I accepted Salford’s offer.
“It has definitely proved to be the best move I could have made at this time in my career, though, not only from the rugby aspect but also the opportunity to see the world. I’d never been to Europe before, so I now have the chance to travel around, with my partner who has come over with me.
“The club was really good to me from the moment I arrived, and all the players made me feel really welcome.”
He certainly did not have long to wait to make his Super League debut, for having missed out in the opening round against Wigan, the following week he was promptly brought onto the bench for the visit to Wakefield, in Round 2.
“I was quite nervous before coming on because I really wanted to do my best for the club, our fans and my teammates. It was a very cold night, and before I was brought on I was having to put in a few minutes to get myself properly warmed up.”
He certainly made a positive impact when he was introduced into the fray, immediately bringing penetration into the Trinity defensive line with his hit ups.
“I felt the game went really well for me; once I’d made my first tackle and hit up I settled into the game. My dad always told me to go for the gaps to make the most progress, and now I just do that as a matter of habit.
Having spent the previous twelve months playing reserve grade rugby, he had been delighted to get a chance so early in the season, and had been determined to make the most of it, which I am sure we would all agree that he did, because from that point on, he became a regular in the team, week in week out, putting in quite sterling performances against older and much more experienced players, never taking a backward step in the face of pressure or adversity, and coming through the full season with a considerably enhanced reputation
“I just took each week as it came around, putting in the best performance I could. After a few matches, I was given a break as they didn’t want me burning myself out, but after that the only games I missed were when I picked up a couple of niggly injuries. All in all, I played a total of twenty-two games.”
Of all the games in which he featured, he remembers the away game at Huddersfield, in which he scored his first Super League try, but the ones he enjoyed most were the ones in which the whole team gelled, and played well together.
“The games we won were the ones where we all played well together. When everyone is on the same page it makes your own job so much easier and enjoyable. Everything goes just that bit more smoothly.”
The one match to which he had really been looking forward, was the Magic Weekend, but sadly, this was one of the games he was forced to sit out through injury, having been concussed in the previous week’s fixture.
“I had to sit and watch from the stands, but I really enjoyed the occasion, the build up beforehand, and then seeing all the Super League teams coming together, on the one big stage. I shall be keeping my fingers crossed that I stay fit to be able to play in next season’s. I’ll be really ready to go for that one.”
The seven fixtures which constituted the Qualifiers, at the end of the season, was yet another novel experience, particularly with the seriousness of the club’s Super League status at stake, but Ben claims to have taken all that in his stride.
“I didn’t really feel any pressure because that was the main spell where everyone just came up with their best performances of the season. You really don’t feel pressure when everyone turns it on. It was helped by the return of a number of players from injury, who were coming back fresh.”
He also points to the acquisition of Jackson Hastings and Joey Lusick as significant contributory factors in this.
“It was the missing piece in the jig-saw, because we had been missing the connecting link between forwards and backs, all season. Once we got that, we were able to finish with a flourish, and we did really well.”
Now, after a month’s trip back home to Melbourne to see his family, he has returned for pre-season training, focusing on giving it his best effort in every training session, because he firmly believes that if he does that now, the season, when it starts, will take care of itself.