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Tears of Joy for proud Rugby family bonded by Wallaroos and Fiji

Thu, 05/05/2022, 10:32 pm
Jim Tucker
by Jim Tucker
Wallaroos Mahalia Murphy and Lori Cramer have spoken after the unveil of the First Nations jersey on the Gold Coast.

Halfback Iliseva Batibasaga knew as soon as the Wallaroos team was announced that her large rugby-mad family would be cheering for both sides at Suncorp Stadium tonight.

She is a proud Australian yet her Fijian heritage is also ever-present in the way she plays and thinks about the game.

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Listening to both anthems before she plays against Fijiana in the Wallaroos’ first Test for three years will be one of the most emotional moments of her career.

It certainly will be one of the proudest moments for her ever-smiling 74-year-old father IsimeliBatibasaga sitting in the grandstands.

Isimeli played 13 Tests as a mainstay for Fiji in the 1970s, including the 1972 Test against the Wallabies when Peter Sullivan, Russell Fairfax, Dick Cocks, Roy Prosser and Co visited Suva.

He was a scheming, dive-passing halfback himself who migrated to Brisbane where he played for Redcliffe, married Kathy and raised a family.

“I’m so proud of her. I will sing both anthems and my tears are going to run down,” the quietly-spoken patriarch said.

His daughter’s 16th Test is a milestone of remarkable longevity and sustained quality in a game that has often been miserly in scheduling internationals for women. Wallabies captain Michael Hooper has played 118 Tests and he started his international career six years after Batisbasaga.

Playing halfback runs in the genes...former Fijian Test halfback Isimeli Batisbasaga playing for Redcliffe in the 1980s and daughter Iliseva preparing to pass for the NSW Waratahs.
Playing halfback runs in the genes...former Fijian Test halfback Isimeli Batisbasaga playing for Redcliffe in the 1980s and daughter Iliseva preparing to pass for the NSW Waratahs.

“This is definitely a big occasion, especially playing against Fijiana and being from Brisbane with family coming to watch,” Ili said.

“The family has already told me they will be cheering for both sides.

“For a lot of us, as players, there won’t be a dry eye at the anthems.

“It’s been three long years since the Wallaroos played a Test. Girls like Sera (Naiqama) have had potential Test debuts stripped away while we’ve ridden through the storm of cancellations and COVID.

“Opportunity after opportunity has been taken away. It’s not been fair but there’s a different vibe this week.

“We’re a hive of action and excitement. This is not a training camp but a Test camp with a reward. I’ve got goosebumps thinking about this.”

Batibasaga, 37, made her Wallaroos debut as a perky 21-year-old in 2006 when she was playing in Brisbane. She was the youngest in Australia’s 2006 Rugby World Cup squad to Canada which meant she was in charge of keeping Wallamina, the team’s fluffy toy wallaroo, out of trouble.

The toy mascot is now the responsibility of Perth 18-year-old Tamika Jones.

Wallamina, the Wallaroos' toy mascot, in safe keeping or not with Tamika Jones (left) and Iliseva Batibasaga.
Wallamina, the Wallaroos' toy mascot, in safe keeping or not with Tamika Jones (left) and Iliseva Batibasaga.

Batibasaga played for Queensland in the early days when she was producing eye-popping stats like her 40 tries in 14 games for her Brothers club in 2007.

She shifted to Sydney in 2010 for greater opportunities and skill development under the eye of Wallaroos coaches and built her career as an educational leader in early childhood teaching at the same time.

She has enormous pride in representing her family and the rise of women’s rugby.

 “I’ve got some photos of dad playing. It didn’t really hit me about us playing the same position until I had older relatives say that watching me play was like watching dad play,” Ili said.

What part of her make-up is most naturally Fijian?

“In my family, we always say I’ve dad’s rugby and my mum’s brains,” she said with a laugh.

Isimeli Batibasaga was the first Fijian rugby player to land in Australia from tiny Namatakula village. That speck on the coast has produced such rich rugby talent as Lote Tuqiri, Tevita Kuridrani, Chris Kuridrani and Nemani Nadolo. All are her cousins or nephews.

The Batibasaga dive pass was one of her father’s trademarks. He chuckled that it hasn’t always been a skill passed down successfully.

“I remember Ili diving for a try for Queensland in one early game on the Gold Coast and her landing knee first,” Isimeli said.

“My advice to a halfback has always been...as soon as you pass, just follow the ball.”

It would be a marvellous achievement for Batibasaga to push on to a third World Cup in New Zealand this year, 12 years after her last taste at the 2010 tournament in England.

There is no rush. There are the misty eyes at the anthems to deal first before the 5pm kick-off against a talented Fijiana side.

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