Naturally, sevens rugby is in the shadows right now, seeing that the Rugby World Cup for 15s is in the process of being contested — and seeing that, yesterday, the All Blacks inflicted a monstrous (96-17) defeat on Italy. That sort of performance can do wonders for morale and interest among Kiwi sports followers. But attention will soon turn to the contest for the world men’s title for sevens rugby. That’s where a 42-year-old, Hāwera-based, Fijian-born, former world player of the year (2012), Tomasi Cama, will have a big influence. He’s now the head coach for the New Zealand team. No surprise there. He has the credentials as a twinkle-toes player and as a coach. No doubt his influence on the players will show over the coming months. Here he’s having a chat with Dale about the path that’s led him to this role.
Tēnā koe, Tomasi. Bula vinaka. Let’s start with some details about your background.
Well, my full name is Tomasi Cama. I’m named after my dad, Tomasi, and we’re from the island of Koro, which is in the Lomaiviti group in Fiji.
But I was born in Suva. Then I went to the village of Sinuvaca where I lived with my grandparents on my dad’s side, till I was 11 or 12. Village life was really simple. We lived off the land, planting our fruit and vegetables, living with our close people and relatives, and playing with cousins. That was the cool part about it.
In te ao Māori, this relationship between the grandfather, grandmother and mokopuna is treasured. How did growing up with your grandparents help shape you?
They’re probably the two most important people in my life. May their souls rest in peace. They looked after me and a few other relatives too.
My grandmother was a bit different from my grandad. She’s more of a straight-shooter. She’d give us a smack if she thought we needed to be straightened up. Grandad is more on the caring side.
In the village, they’d often say: “We don’t have much, but we have everything.” Because we had all our relatives, all our people with us. And I learned from my grandparents to be grateful for everything that we had — although that wasn’t much until I came here to New Zealand.
Normal life was just getting up every day, and having to go to school, and making sure that I did all my jobs at home — like doing the dishes and washing my uniform before I went out to play. Then I’d have to make sure that I’d be home before dark. There’s other little things they told me, and that I hold on to wherever I go.
Was your schooling in te reo Fiji, or in English?
It was all English at school. We weren’t allowed to speak Fijian, but we still spoke Fijian most of the time, anyway.
How important was church to you as you were growing up?
Massive. Every evening we had devotional prayer. Then Sunday school at 10am. And you had to attend, unless you were sick, or you were away. If not, then you got punished at school on Monday. The hymn competition against other villages was big too. I hold on to those things.
I understand that your pāpā was known and admired as a rugby player. When did you become aware of his standing?
I was still in the village while he was playing provincial rugby and playing for Fiji as well. We didn’t have a TV in the village but my grandad used to listen to the games on the radio. Sometimes the games were late at night, so I’d have to wake him up in the morning and ask him what the score was.
As a kid, I wanted to be like my dad — just play rugby. I used to play with my mates in the village, and we all used to pretend we were this player or that one. Dad started taking me under his wing, showing me what I needed to do if I wanted to come along with my rugby. He’d let me go and play in any team if they asked me to play. But there was one condition. I had to be well-prepared.
He helped me to become disciplined with my nutrition. We were different because he was a winger and I wasn’t as fast as him. But I had my own strengths and I developed a style of game that suited the way I play.
When did you first get noticed?
I was still in the village, and there was a big tournament for the men. I think I was 16, and I ended up playing. That was my first tournament against men, and I was scared. We played against my dad’s club. I actually played against him in my first tournament.
How old were you when you first played for Fiji?
I didn’t play for Fiji. I played at provincial level for the under-20s and under-21s when I was 17. I attended one player camp for Fiji Sevens, but I didn’t make it. I was 17 at the time. Then a couple of years later, I came to New Zealand.
Haere mai. And what did you make of this place when you arrived?
I came with my dad to a tournament in Wellington and I ended up playing rugby for Manawatū. That’s where Gordon Tietjens (Titch) saw me playing. He asked me if I wanted to play for New Zealand — and that was it.
As we know, he had a talent for spotting talent. Any trouble fitting in with the local community?
It was easy. I used my rugby to fit in. There’s a Fijian rugby community around our church which was a big bonus. We did work in the schools to help the kids with their rugby — and that was cool. Manawatū was my home province.
In the course of his coaching career, Titch gave young guys a shot, some still at high school. How did you feel about this guru of sevens rugby seeing something in you?
He asked me to play in a sevens tournament in Wellington, so I went, and after the first game, he asked me if I wanted to play for New Zealand.
Before that, I had my 21st birthday in Palmy and one of my wishes, at that time, was to play for Fiji. I’d always dreamed of playing for Fiji — until that day when Titch asked me, and I changed my mind.
I was thinking: “Man, New Zealand is a team I only saw on TV when I was in Fiji.” There was this big rivalry between Fiji and New Zealand, and in the back of my mind, I thought: “Maybe I’ll just challenge myself, see if I can make it to the New Zealand team.”
So I rang my dad, and told him that’s what I wanted to do. He said he’d support me whatever decision I made, as long as I worked hard.
You did work hard, didn’t you? And the international sevens circuit has meant travel and experiences that most young guys could only dream about. How did you feel, on planes, staying in hotels, visiting all these exotic places?
That was huge to make the team, and then be part of it for years and enjoy the overseas travel and cultures. I was so grateful for all these opportunities.
Take us to the very first time you lined up against Fiji.
I can’t recall the first time I played against them — but then, every time I play against them, it’s special. There’s such a rivalry between the two nations, and it’s never easy. But, when I play, I see myself as a New Zealander.
I remember one year when my dad was coaching Fiji, and I played them in Hong Kong. Before the tournament, we had an interview and he said: “When it comes to the tournament, he’s not my son — he’s playing for the other team. But he’ll be my son after the tournament.”
So, that’s how it is. Before the tournament, he’s my dad. For the tournament, he’s not. And after the tournament, he’s my dad again.
Do you have a family here in Aotearoa?
My partner, Sarah, and I have two girls. My older one, Livia-Gace, is named after my grandmother — she’s 14. And my young one, Tayah, is 11.
Where do you live now?
In Hawera. But every week I come up to Mount Maunganui, to the sevens base.
What changes have you needed to make in order to move successfully from being a player to the coaching staff?
When you play, you’re doing what you know, but when you go into coaching, it’s more complicated.
The big thing for me was to understand how people learn, and to become better at communicating my ideas to the players.
I had to learn how to manage the players and simplify the game for them. So the transition from player to coach was a big step.
Every player comes from a different culture and background, so you aren’t automatically on a wavelength, are you?
All the players bring different strengths to the game, and the challenge for a coach is to design a game that suits everyone.
How do you get your senior players to share that whakaaro with the younger players so that everyone’s on song when the chips are down?
It’s something we work hard on with all our senior players. They’ve got the experience which the young ones lack. But we make sure they keep bringing their energy to their training and to their games.
How important is culture to the success of the New Zealand teams? Our teams tend to be very multicultural, don’t they?
We’ve got various cultures in our group. There are Fijians, Tongans, Sāmoans, Māori, and the Pākehā guys. We get different strengths from each of those cultures.
One strength is the singing. We’ve got a Fijian song, a Tongan song, and Sāmoan and Māori songs. We all learn those, and sometimes we use some of those languages in our everyday life. The culture is very inclusive, and the guys feel proud of who they are.
We take that same culture on to the rugby field. Some of our language, like our defensive system, is in te reo Māori. Some of our plays are in Fijian, in Tongan, in Sāmoan. We’re inclusive and everything comes down to hard work. Every culture aligns on that. That’s what brings us together as a unit. When you all work hard, you know you can rely on each other.
You’re in your 40s now, and I imagine that you could point to a number of people who’ve helped you to prepare for this coaching role.
I was lucky to have Dave Rennie as a coach for six years. I learned a lot from him about how he sees and analyses the game.
Titch was my coach for a long time, and there’s no secret about why he had all his successes. He made you work hard. And he made you look after your health and fitness — and take care with what you’re eating and drinking.
Then, you just have to be mentally tough, and prepare for anything. That’s one thing I learned from Titch — and also from Clark Laidlaw, our previous coach, who brought something different, especially about how we connect as people. We’re obviously from different backgrounds, and it’s about how we bring all our cultures alive within our team culture. It’s a family away from our own family, eh?
I think it’s just how we show care and love for each other in this environment, and how we sometimes can be vulnerable, and be ourselves, and share our story.
But the one thing all the players align on is people working hard, making sacrifices, and being committed to their tasks.
Sometimes we need other kaupapa to keep us vibrant and strong. What else does Tomasi Cama do to keep himself fresh?
Spending time with Sarah and our girls. Also, I love singing — and I’ve learned how to play the guitar.
I’ve always wanted to be part of a band, but I know I can’t sing. Hopefully, one day, I’ll play in a band.
When’s your first hit-out as the head coach, Tomasi?
We’re playing against Tonga this month, and then Australia for the Oceania 7s tournament in November. And then Dubai for the world sevens tournament in December.
Well, I hope you have tremendous success guiding our team, Tomasi. It’s been a pleasure talking with you. I thank you very much.
Vinaka. Thank you.
Vinaka, brother. All the best.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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