By Simon Rathbone for Queensland Rugby League
There is an undeniable Fijian flavour to the Bundaberg A Grade Rugby League and local farmer Keith Martens thinks the competition is better for it.
For the past six years, Mr Martens from Marto Farms has been instrumental in bringing Fijian players across to the region, in order for them to gain work on properties and packing sheds; all whilst encouraging the young men to participate in the local Bundaberg Rugby League competition.
Clubs such as Easts Magpies, Isis District and Across the Waves have all utilised the wide range of talent on offer from the island nation and Mr Martens believes the inclusion of Fijian players will help any club struggling for numbers.
“It gives local clubs players where they'd normally be struggling for numbers – which all helps keep league alive,” Mr Martens said.
With the Seasonal Worker Program in place, the scheme is able to assist farmers like Martens by providing access to workers from Pacific Island and Melanesian countries.
As seasonal workers are able to return in following seasons, this provides employers with access to a reliable, returning workforce.
Fijian players building a better life
Many workers are due to return to the region following the upcoming Easter weekend.
“We bring them across for a very simple reason – firstly, we encourage them to work, secondly, they are representing their island, and thirdly, we want them to fit into a community and the best way to fit in is through sport,” Mr Martens said.
Mr Martens expressed he had received plenty of positive feedback from development officers currently over in Fiji, who said that each person is coming back as far better players; largely thanks to the great coaches available in the Bundaberg region.
“I asked how do these blokes go after playing under the Australian coaches, and he said they are miles better players thanks to the great coaches over here, who can teach them far more than we ever could,” Mr Martens said.
Not only are there immense benefits for the Fijian players on the field, but they have begun to reap the rewards off it; with players able to return to Fiji with a chance of building a better life for themselves and their families.
“They are here currently working on a six-month visa and when they are here, they want to work for the entire six months, so they can earn and send money back home to their families,” Mr Martens said.
“Their ambition is to build a better life for themselves when they come over here.
“They come over here and work the season and they can go home and usually build a family house.”
Tom Matebau makes his mark at Wests Panthers
It is not just overseas talent lighting up the Bundaberg Rugby League competition however, with former Shalom College student Tom Matebau (also known as Tomasi Tikonilia) one player representing his father’s Fijian heritage while playing for the Wests Panthers.
At the age of six, Matebau made the move from New Zealand to Bundaberg with his siblings where he then lived with his aunty and uncle.
Having previously played for Brothers during his junior years, Matebau has spent recent season’s playing for the Shalom College side that took part in the annual Confraternity Carnival held in Charters Towers last year.
While he is a destructive force on the field, Shalom College teacher and rugby league coach Neil Feather saw first-hand how Matebau’s infectious smile and carefree attitude off the field was his best attribute.
“In regards to Tom, I’ve never thought of his background to be honest, he is just a jovial character that brings levity to the team, every team needs a mix of serious and not so serious to help relax players or bring them up to speed at times,” Mr Feather said.
The man who has been dubbed the ‘Fijian Mountain’ will be looking to make the most of his big frame and powerful running game this season, as he looks to push into the Reserve or A Grade side for Wests.
“Next year, as I will turn 18 … I hope to land a job, but still play league for West Panthers as a reserve for A Grade,” Matebau said.
With players like Matebau lighting up the local competitions, as well as the increasing success of Fijian backpackers, the prominent presence of Fijian rugby league in Bundaberg is paying dividends.