Rugby Union

Henry Speight plays with heavy heart after Cyclone Winston knocks down his school

ACT Brumbies winger Henry Speight sat by his phone waiting for the call to tell him his family was safe after Tropical Cyclone Winston hit his home town of Lautoka.

Twenty-four hours passed and every possibility crossed his mind not knowing if they were alive, hurt or had their home destroyed by winds of up to 330 kilometres per hour.

Brumbies duo Tevita Kuridrani and Henry Speight will start the season with heavy hearts after Cyclone Winston hit their ...
Brumbies duo Tevita Kuridrani and Henry Speight will start the season with heavy hearts after Cyclone Winston hit their home nation of Fiji. Photo: Melissa Adams

So after finally hearing from his sister, Speight will be driven by one thing when he runs on to Canberra Stadium to start the Super Rugby season on Friday night: he wants to make people in Fiji smile for 80 minutes.

The hard-running Speight and Brumbies teammate Tevita Kuridrani let out a sigh of relief on Sunday when they were able to speak to their families in Fiji to hear that  they were safe and unharmed despite their homes being flooded.

The damage at Henry Speight's school, Queen Victoria School.
The damage at Henry Speight's school, Queen Victoria School. Photo: Fijione.tv

The pair were heartbroken to learn the death toll had risen to 21 after the category five cyclone ripped through the island nation.

But they immediately got into action, asking their Brumbies teammates to donate any clothes or rugby gear they didn't need as well as trying to raise money and gather food and water for those in need, ahead of their clash against Wellington's Hurricanes.

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More than 8400 people are still in evacuation centres and Australia has pledged $5 million in emergency aid.

Speight and Kuridrani are chasing a drought-breaking Super Rugby title, but more importantly want to rally support for people in Fiji and help them escape reality for 80 minutes.

Henry Speight's family gather each week to watch the Brumbies play.
Henry Speight's family gather each week to watch the Brumbies play. Photo: Supplied

"My sister's house is flooded and the TV is stuffed, but she's still got a roof over her head," Speight said.

"But there was one girl whose mother ran back to get some clothes and the villagers found [the mother] dead a few hours later. There are people who are worse off.

Henry Speight has a tattoo of his school on his shoulder.
Henry Speight has a tattoo of his school on his shoulder. Photo: Graham Tidy

"A TV is something you can replace, but there are other people worse off and that makes it hit home.

"We go on about material things ... but you see how this affects people's lives. If we can bring some happiness to them at this tough time, that makes it more meaningful."

Speight is starting the biggest year of his career this weekend as he also juggles his Rio Olympic Games hopes with the Australian sevens team.

The Brumbies are looking at ways to raise money for charities set up to help those in Fiji, with Speight and Kuridrani leading the charge.

Speight was keen to donate his jersey for auction, and then drive to Sydney with any food, water or clothes donated to ensure they reach Fiji.

Speight's sister, Davila, returned to her home on Monday to start the clean-up with brother Jerry.

Speight's former school, the Queen Victoria School, was also severely damaged, with some children sleeping on benches and walking several kilometres to be transported back to their homes.

The school is close to Speight's heart, and he has its emblem tattooed on his right shoulder.

The Brumbies have a huge following in Fiji thanks to Speight and Kuridrani, who regularly speak to each other in their native language. Fiji has the biggest concentration of Brumbies fans on Facebook outside of Australia.

Speight raised $30,000 for the Walk On Walk Strong foundation to support kids with cancer in Fiji when he shaved his afro two years ago and once travelled to Sydney to buy the Fiji under-20s team food and equipment to ensure they weren't disadvantaged.

But he doesn't do it for the spotlight. He does it to bring smiles to faces back home.

"It was nerve-wracking waiting for that call to see if the family was OK ... trying all night on Saturday and all day Sunday to hear from them. But mine and Tevita's families are safe," Speight said.

"Hopefully we can get something going here – clothes, food, water or whatever – the community is always good in Canberra and I'm sure this is no different.

"A can of baked beans would go a long way for any of the families affected.  For Tevita and I, this week is special. If we can give the fans back home 80 minutes to forget about what's happening, to give them something to smile about, maybe it can be an escape for just a moment."

* The Brumbies are working to find the best way for anyone to make donations. Details are expected to be confirmed in the coming days.