'Poly boys' feel right at home with Brumbies
Brumbies "Islander" players. L to R Scott Sio, Colby Faingaa, Christian Lealiifano, Joseph Tomane, Fotu Auelu, Tevita Kuridrani, Siliva Siliva and Kimami Sitauti. Photo: Graham Tidy
They call themselves ''The Community'' - a group of Samoans, Tongans, Maoris and Fijians sticking together to adapt to life away from home.
And the Pacific Islander group has become an integral part of the ACT Brumbies as they attempt to break their Super Rugby finals drought.
The Brumbies will play the NSW Waratahs at ANZ Stadium in Sydney tonight. A bonus-point win will secure them a place in the finals for the first time since the club won the rugby union competition in 2004.
South African coach Jake White has turned the club from competition battlers to title contenders.
But on the eve of one of the Brumbies' most important games, Christian Lealiifano revealed how a tight-knit relationship between 12 Pacific Islanders has helped the club's transformation.
The Brumbies have more Pacific Islanders than any Australian franchise and ''The Community'' has become a family.
''For a Pacific Islander, especially a young fella, moving away from home was always going to be difficult and I just wanted to create an environment for them … somewhere they could call home,'' Lealiifano said.
''That's all I really wanted to achieve with this group, not only the whole group but the Pacific Islanders in general because I can relate.
''I feel like we've achieved that and everyone's happy here and we've created a very nice culture of our own. I wouldn't say I'm king, I'm just one of the boys, I just wanted to create [something] that I didn't have when I came here and build [it] as more Polynesians came into the side.''
White has unexpectedly led the Brumbies to a spectacular rise this year. He took over the coaching reins and the Brumbies are within reach of a drought-breaking finals appearance.
Lealiifano has been sidelined for the finals race after breaking and dislocating his ankle in May.
But he's still playing a crucial role behind the scenes.
When he first arrived in the capital, he struggled to adjust and Brumbies great George Smith and Francis Fainifo helped him adapt.
Instead of watching fellow Pacific Islanders go through the same tough period, he decided to change the culture and now his teammates refer to him as the king.
For White, it's the first time he's been the senior coach of a team with Pacific Islanders.
Of course, White is no stranger to coaching players from different cultures and backgrounds.
In South Africa he coached Afrikaans, English, coloured, black, private school, public school, rich, poor players. But he thinks his past experience has helped him adjust to the Polynesian mix at the Brumbies.
''I think the fact we eat together and we spend so much time together brings out the best in [the Islanders] as well because they love that home feeling and they enjoy that family feeling,'' White said.
''I do think [it's making the club stronger]. The mateship they have and 'The Community' thing they have is probably a role model for how a team should be because it's a bit infectious … it's a great quality to have in a team.''
Both Lealiifano and Samoan No. 8 Fotu Auelua praised their South African mentor for how he's handled the team and The Community.
''He's been able to find out what makes the Pacific Island boys tick,'' Lealiifano said. ''It's a hard thing for the coach because the Poly boys handle things differently to an Aussie kid … compared to a [Polynesian] boy who's running around in Tonga or Fiji and then is put into a professional environment.
''He's definitely been good in that regard to know what it takes for his Poly boys to be happy and to get the best out of them.
''The hardest thing for him. or any coach for the Islanders, is their diet, and him setting up that kitchen at the Brumbies has probably been the best thing for The Community.''
Any wounded leader has to watch his back and Lealiifano joked the powerful No. 8 Ita Vaea was trying to take over his crown.
But he needn't fear, according to an even more powerful loose forward, Auelua, who said the mantle was safe where it was.
Auelua did admit the group was missing their leader, as Lealiifano continues his rehabilitation, but he was surprised at just how big The Community was. ''[Lealiifano is] still king mate, he's still on top, still got the title,'' Auelua said.
Now they just have to win the Super Rugby crown for their injured king.