ESPN talks to Rupeni Caucau
The best that never was: Finding Caucaunibuca
March 26, 2014
The flawed genius, Rupeni Caucaunibuca in 2003 © Getty Images
On Brian O'Driscoll's website, there is a list of the 13 best players he has faced. Sitting third behind Jonah Lomu and Tim Horan is a Fijian with just seven caps for his national team. Since 2001, Rupeni Caucaunibuca has started a miserly 126 first-team matches but the level of skill, pace and box-office ability shown in the 87 tries he scored over the last 13 years has ensured he will go down in rugby folklore, albeit as one of the sport's great wasted talents.
Caucaunibuca is an enigma. Thousands upon thousands of words have been penned speculating where he will journey to next, whether he will turn up a club or if his feet have finally settled. What becomes abundantly clear when talking to Caucau is that family comes first, so it seems he has realised his playing days are numbered.
He was brought up in the Bua province of Fiji and it was a humble upbringing to say the least. "I grew up in place that did not really know rugby, it was a place far from town," Caucau told ESPN. "I grew up in a poor family, living in a small house. My dad was a missionary and he always travelled around. We moved around a lot and all we had was this small house. To make money, you had to go fishing and diving. I did not know that if you play rugby, you can get money."
When he first burst on to the scene at the Blues, he was a sensation. Speaking to Joe Rokocoko back in 2009, he told me: "When he was at the Blues he used to come up to us, before a game, and ask us how many tries we wanted him to score and he'd go onto the field and do it. I'm not sure what his own demons are about, but if he had the professional head of someone like [Dan] Carter or Richie [McCaw] then I'm in no doubt that he'd have been a legend on a similar level to Jonah. Most rugby players would love to have his talent."
But what followed after that eye-catching spell at the Blues was not the rugby immortality which he seemed destined for. During the 2003 World Cup, he scored two remarkable tries against Scotland but also copped a two-match ban for punching Olivier Magne - the halo and horns.
The two matches back in October 2003 ended up, unfortunately, being the perfect capture of what was to follow. Incredible pieces of skill were interspersed with off-field tales. The move to join Agen in 2004 saw him leave behind the support network he had at the Blues and also the geographical proximity he had to Fiji. His career started to court controversy. In June 2005 Fiji banned him from playing for the national side for a year after he failed to board a plane for Samoa as he wanted to attend to his sick wife. On other occasions, when injured, he would return home without alerting the relevant people.
"I know what my body says," Caucau said. "Sometimes I'm injured and get injured they keep asking me to play. But my body knows it's injured. When I go back to Fiji I can feel the pain of my body and that's sometimes I need the rest. Even when I was playing in the club and I get injured they tell me I have to play and will give me an injection. But I have to rest. I know my body and I know how I feel."
On duty for Agen in 2006 © Getty Images
But while off-field tales still dogged his career, he was still producing the goods on the field for Agen. Between 2004 and 2006 he scored 33 tries in 43 starts. It looked like Caucau was finally happy, though at times looked overweight for a winger. Then came a near-death experience.
He missed the first 10 games of the 2006-07 season due to typhoid, he was in a grim condition. "When I ended up in hospital, I nearly died," Caucau said. "My close friend from New Zealand Glen Subritzky came to the hospital and he's only my friend, but when he came through the door and saw me lying down in the bed, he started crying. He thought I was going to die. I wasn't sure if I could walk again or even play rugby, but I did."
Agen stuck by him, even through his three-month ban for cannabis in 2007. In 2008 he had reportedly agreed to join Racing Metro only to pull the plug as Leicester were chasing his services - the move to the Tigers never materialised despite them paying for two flights to bring him over to England. The whole circus led Sireli Bobo, who did honour his agreement with Metro, to label Caucau "a disgrace to all the Fijian players". Caucau went full circle and ended up back at Agen.
Eventually their good-faith ended and in October 2010 Toulouse brought him in as a medical joker for the injured Yann David. Such was his impact, they awarded him another year's contract. Despite seeming most content nearer home, when asked where he was most settled, he immediately said: "Toulouse; the people, management, my rugby and they were close to me and my family."
Sprinting away for Toulouse in 2011 © Getty Images
But Caucau's body, complete with a frame bursting at the seams, gave up after playing just a handful minutes in his first match of Toulouse's 2011-12 campaign against Bayonne. Originally he was diagnosed with a thigh injury but it transpired he also needed knee surgery and that marked the end of his time at Toulouse and in France. What followed was a 22-month hiatus from professional rugby; it looked like rugby was robbed of one, last glorious hurrah from Caucau.
Then came a glimmer of hope in June 2013. After completing the recovery from his knee operation, he was called into the Classic All Blacks side to play a Flying Fijian elect to mark the 100-year anniversary of the Fijian Rugby Union. Weighing in at 107kgs, 13kgs lighter than some of his days in the Top 14, Caucau was in good shape and earned a contract with Northland.
"If we can get him back to even 80% of his ability we will have an outstanding player," said Northland CEO Jeremy Parkinson at the time. "But it's up to Rupeni. He needs to get fit and stay fit and then play at the level he knows he can."
"It's up to Rupeni", a phrase that seems to govern his career. He played just three times for Northland and spoke openly before about his hope of using the ITM Cup as a springboard for attracting another lucrative offer from overseas. Talking to Caucau in March 2014, he is still in the same place.
"Last season was good for me, I had just come back from my knee injury. It was a good step for me to go to Northland. I enjoyed it there. At the moment I am looking forward, I am in good shape and I don't want to waste time. My time is going fast. I don't know how many years I have left to play rugby and I am here to work hard."
This week Caucau is playing in the annual Hong Kong 10s in a team coached by Tana Umaga. "We arrived on Sunday, it's good weather, good food, good people; I enjoy my life here." Playing in Asia could be an option for Caucau.
The leaner Caucaunibuca in 2013 © Getty Images
Wherever he goes, he is box office and he hopes the tournament could act as a shop window. His priority, it seems, has and always will be his family. He has two girls and a boy back in Suva and he is now blindingly aware that the time for him to earn money from the game is running out. "My motivation is to try hard in every single game. I need to get that contract to help me and my family. I need someone on the sideline to touch his hat and say 'okay, you're good enough for us'."
If you were asked to sum up Caucau's career it would be hard to look past something along the lines of wasted potential. Does the man have regrets? "Yes ..." his voice trails off at the moment, then comes a more resolute, "Yes. Now it's time for me to work hard. I am nearly finished." Only he knows what those rued moments were.
When rugby looks back at Caucau's career when the time comes for the 'Bua Bullet' to finally hang up his well-trodden and travelled boots, we will have the YouTube clips to act as a visual legacy. He appreciates the following, but is adamant he is not ready to call time quite yet. "It's nice to see those tries, but I have to work hard this time to try to be the same like that. I don't have any fears."
And despite all the press and controversy Caucau has courted, when asked when he is most untroubled, it is a clear answer. "When I'm fit, very fit, and scoring tries. That's when I'm happiest." The same goes for the sport as a whole.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.