Destination Drua: Why a day at the rugby should be part of your Fijian getaway

Drua fans in Fiji.
Photo credit: Getty Images

We New Zealanders like to think of ourselves as the unofficial global ambassadors of rugby, the spiritual guardians of the game.

It's in our DNA, right? Just look at our three shiny World Cup trophies.

Obviously, rugby is a way of life in Aotearoa. But in Fjii, it's a religion.

The lush countryside is littered with groups of kids practicing throwing around anything from a plastic bottle to a coconut, attempting sidesteps so lethal they perhaps could only be a product of genetics, a natural gift years of sevens supremacy has bred. 

Rugby jerseys are de rigueur. Taxi drivers want to tell you all about their favourite All Black - shout out to my mate who had wily Cantabrian Todd Blackadder down as his GOAT. 

The country even boasts a $7 note - a rare denomination minted to commemorate the mens' sevens side that won Fiji's first ever Olympic gold medal in Rio. Four years later, they produced another after they defended their crown in Tokyo, this time including the Fijiana - the women's side that won bronze.

Inland residents - referred to as 'interiors' - will hike into the hills with a generator and a TV so they can watch their beloved team during their sevens tournaments across the globe. For three days. You get the idea.

Fourteen thousand fans packed into Churchill Park to watch the Drua beat the Crusaders.
Fourteen thousand fans packed into Churchill Park to watch the Drua beat the Crusaders. Photo credit: Getty Images

Of course, Fijian rugby has always been synonymous with sevens and given their success over the years, justifiably so.

But you only need to drive through the centre of Nadi to realise there's a new show in town - the Fijian Drua, whose vibrant royal blue and teal colour combination now holds its own among the national team's traditional black and white.

Originally founded in 2017 as a part of Australia's domestic championship, they officially joined the Super Rugby competition in 2022. But the pandemic meant they spent their inaugural season based in Australia.

Now back on home soil after two years of exile and reconnected with their fanbase, the Drua have become the hottest ticket in town. Sales of their replica jersey have eclipsed those of their rivals by almost 40 percent.

That homecoming has also introduced a new experience for the thousands of Kiwis per year who make their way north to Fiji to incorporate into their Pasifika getaway. Alongside its richly deserved reputation for postcard-perfect island escapism - it's now also a genuine sporting destination.

A day out at the rugby provides a chance to experience first-hand both the authenticity of the locals and their unadulterated passion for the sport. The outcome is not as important as it is for many Kiwi fans - the Fijians are there for their love of the game, in its purest sense.

The Drua play their home games across two venues: the capital's ANZ Stadium and Churchill Park in Lautoka, which is where they recently hosted the defending champion Crusaders on the kind of cloud-free Saturday afternoon you cross your fingers for when you board your flight.

For those staying at one of the multiple resorts on offer at the hugely popular Denarau Island, that's approximately a one-hour bus trip away. But to really maximise your gameday experience there's only one mode of transport to the match: the Drua Voyager.

Hosted by the club itself and departing from Port Denarau, the catamaran cruiser provides two hours of sun and beer soaked fun. It was the ultimate pre-match entertainment - a mandatory accompaniment for any travelling fan.

Aboard the Drua Voyager in Fiji.
Spirits were high on the Drua Voyager. Photo credit: Newshub.

Onboard the good times and light-hearted rugby ribbing flowed as freely as the Fiji Gold. A couple of Drua players not involved in the day's match were mixing and mingling with fans. Some choose to marinate on the deck and take in, others get into the thick of it with the live band below deck.

There was even time for a mini dancefloor to kick off, where locals dragged some of the visiting fans for a contrasting display of natural rhythm and Cantabrian tipsiness. Drastic evasive measures meant I was spared the embarrassment.

After docking, there's just a quick bus trip to Churchill Park, where the fervour steadily built the closer we get to our destination. Kids were frothing with excitement, climbing nearby trees to get a view of the park and the festival vibes were palpable.

The stadium itself is humble with a rustic charm that added to the occasion. Think Invercargill's Rugby Park - only somewhere good. Bring your roadies with you straight into the ground - no problem sir.

The raucous crowd pack the embankment at Churchill Park.
The raucous crowd pack the embankment at Churchill Park. Photo credit: Getty Images

The Crusaders match was the Drua's first home game of the season. All 14,000 tickets were sold out weeks before kick-off and the packed house was in ready and early, with the majority sheltering under a sea of golf umbrellas across the main embankment.

I didn't hear any of the dour Kiwi classics like 'Let's go [insert team name here]' or '[Insert team name here in long drawl]'. It's simply a constant low din of intense focus, punctuated by explosions in decibels at even the faintest hint of a Drua advantage. This is an educated rugby crowd.

Years of great Fijian players amid the Crusaders ranks means the team has a huge following in this part of the world and there was a considerable amount of red and black among the masses. Plenty of those were Kiwis, including Chris from Christchurch. He circled the date on a calendar when the Crusaders schedule was announced and recruited a few of his mates for a special boy's trip.

As you'd expect, despite the close halftime scoreline, Chris was having a blast. 

"It's just an awesome opportunity and having it close to Denerau makes the logistics pretty easy," he said, holding a bulging carry bag overflowing with ice and Fiji Bitter from one of the vendors. 

The Drua toppled the Crusaders to score the biggest win in their history.
The Drua toppled the Crusaders to score the biggest win in their history. Photo credit: Getty Images

There's no four-beer limit at Churchill Park, but just make sure you bring cash.

"You don't really want to host the Drua at home, you want to come over here," he added.

As far as the match itself was concerned, the scripting couldn't have been better - at least from a local perspective.

As the furnace-like temperatures took their toll on the visitors (there's a reason they've ensured kick-off is at 3pm), the Drua scored two sensational second-half tries that shook the foundations of the scaffolded stands, giving them their first lead of the contest and just over 10 minutes to protect it.

But the Crusaders - predictably - charged back into the contest. A clutch sideline conversion in the dying moments threatened to break hearts, giving the visitors a two-point lead.

Then the spilled restart. The last roll of the Drua dice. A penalty right in front of the posts sails over to complete the greatest upset in the history of Super Rugby and spark scenes of utter bedlam that rattled the Churchill Park foundations, as the masses broke into song.

Although this is the kind of drama you hope for when you book a sporting trip abroad, the overall experience made the result almost secondary. And you can always count on the trademark Fijian flair to deliver a highlight reel of tries and play with an electricity to match the energy of the crowd.

Speaking afterwards, Chris was unfazed by the outcome. He's travelled to all corners of the globe for the sake of rugby and the Lautoka experience has instantly shot to the top of his rankings.

"The game day experience has been fantastic. People talk about South Africa and the brai and the atmosphere beforehand, this is just as awesome a festival. It's like grassroots rugby, a sevens carnival atmosphere," he said.

"Everyone's into it. Everyone's positive. Lots of chat going around. It's been brilliant."

Assistant coach of the Drua and the Fijian national team Glen Jackson agrees. The former Chiefs first-five and international referee has seen more than his fair share of stadiums throughout almost 20 years at the sport's elite level, and there's something special on these crystal clear waters.

"The atmosphere is just on a different level in terms of anything you'll get at home, the singing and the dancing," said Jackson.

"But more so in those silent moments is where you realise just how much the Fijians love rugby. They go dead quiet and then when something happens you see how intense they are and that they're actually there to watch the game

"You don't get a better experience than in Lautoka.The people around here absolutely love it."

The Drua will play five more games at home this season, meaning there's plenty of time left to schedule your Pacific Island holiday around a game of rugby. Or vice versa. 

That includes matches against Kiwi sides the Blues (April 29) and the Hurricanes (May 6). They also host their Pasifika cousins Moana Pasifika (May 27), which promises to be an all-time classic spectacle. 

It may not be the most hospitable place for visiting teams, but the opposite couldn't be further from the truth for fans wishing to add a refreshing new flavour to their Fijian getaway.

Newshub travelled to Fiji and attended the Super Rugby match courtesy of Tourism Fiji and Fiji Airways.