The decision to build Bristol’s new training ground just 30 minutes from Beachley Barracks could not have worked out much better for Siva Naulago. It meant the British Army mortarman did not even have to find a new place to live when he arrived in the West Country at the start of the month.
Things have moved quickly for Private Naulago, who has already settled into his civilian residence at the base of the 1 Rifles Battalion. He is ready for military service if called upon, but for now his focus is firmly on the rugby pitch. Having arrived at Ashton Gate with no prior experience of professional rugby union, the late-arriving wing will make his first start in the Champions Cup on Sunday.
‘I’m still employed by the Army and I was fortunate that they allowed me to stay there with my wife,’ says Naulago, as he begins to talk through his journey from Fiji to Afghanistan to Chepstow.
Siva Naulago has switched codes after a strong season in rugby league with Hull FC in 2019-20
‘January will mark my 10th year. It started when I was back home in Fiji and my dad wanted to get me out of Fiji before I was 18. He sorted out my application for the Army and I went straight into training.’
During Naulago’s formative years, a career in rugby was not an option. ‘I grew up in a small village in Nadi and came from a sugar cane-farming background,’ he says. ‘There were two choices from my dad: farming or education.
‘You farmed straight after school and in the holidays. It’s like hard labour. You have to plant the sugar cane, protect it with your own cane knives, weed the cane, make sure there’s no grass in between the cane and then cut it. The whole field. After the harvest season, you start again. To be honest, my parents didn’t want me to play rugby but I used to sneak out.
‘My dad used to be a great rugby player but he got injured in his young days. That stopped him from playing and it ended some of his dreams of going to school and providing good stuff for the family. That’s why he didn’t want any of our family to play rugby.
‘I used to sneak out to go and play but my parents caught me and they used to beat the s**t out of me! That’s why they threw me out to come and join the Army.’
Rugby was a forbidden fruit, so Naulago packed his bags and boarded a flight away from the Pacific Islands. There is talent at every corner of his homeland. As a child, he idolised Fijian winger Vereniki Goneva, who grew up in the same part of the island of Viti Levu.
‘I grew up watching Goneva,’ says Naulago. ‘He’s from the other side of my village. There was a tournament for all the villages. It’s the same with every Fijian back home. Usually it would be bare foot and you’re pretty lucky if you find a ball. If not, you just rip up your T-shirt or your dad’s coveralls to make it look like a ball.’
The ex-Leicester Tigers and Newcastle Falcons wing Vereniki Goneva was an idol of Naulago’s
Joining the military felt like the end of Naulago’s rugby dream. He was stationed around the world, however his raw talent was picked up by the Army rugby coaches. A gift of strength and power, built up during a childhood spent working on the fields.
‘Straight after Army training, I got posted to Cyprus for two years,’ he says.
‘We had three or four weeks in Afghanistan then came back to the UK. Our role was on standby. I was a mortarman in a rifle company… a support company which has the heavy weapons. We support fire to the friendly forces just in case a section is under attack and they need our help. They may need a position to be blown up so that’s when they send a message back to us. They’ll give the location and we’ll fire up our mortars. You’ve got your mates around you and you’ve got your brothers. We played a lot of rugby in the unit and it is great bonding time.’
While playing rugby for the Army, Naulago’s potential was spotted by rugby league scouts at Hull FC. He was given permission by his senior officers to sign a contract and went on to score 23 tries in 34 Super League appearances.
Quickly establishing himself as one of the most instinctive wingers, Naulago became fondly known as ‘The Tank on the Flank’. YouTube is filled with highlights of his tries, based on speed, power and the ability to hold the ball in one hand.
Bristol coach Pat Lam has given Naulago the opportunity to return to the code he grew up with
Bristol coach Pat Lam got wind of Naulago’s potential and signed the 29-year-old on a two-year deal. It has been a swift transition back to the code he grew up with.
‘The Army helped me massively with rugby,’ he says, still wearing his festive ‘Let’s Raise the Hoof’ jumper from Bristol’s Christmas lunch. ‘Especially off the field. Discipline is the main part of the Army.
‘My ambition with Bristol is just to try to get better, better and better every week and hopefully be in the first team, week in, week out. There are some world-class players here so I want to try to get a spot. When I was playing for Hull, I still came back into the Army’s rugby union camp to play at Twickenham. I am just learning the Bristol system.’
Naulago could follow in the footsteps of Joe Cokanasiga and join England’s hall of Fijian fame
Insiders say Naulago has been ‘carving up’ in Bristol training and leaving team-mates in awe. He made a brief debut off the bench against Clermont last week and showed his power with a crunching hit on centre George Moala.
On Sunday Naulago will be given another opportunity to show his worth against Connacht and the stage is set to show what he can offer and whether he can join the likes of Semesa Rokoduguni and Joe Cokanasiga in England’s hall of Fijian fame.
‘At the moment, I’m an England-qualified player but obviously I’ve got Fijian background,’ he says. ‘At the moment, I’m not really focused on international rugby. I’m just really focusing on getting my rugby better and hopefully my talent will take me out there.’