In the Counties-Manukau and Auckland Blues teams of the late 1990s, ‘Big Joe’ was one half of a double act the likes of which we may never see again.
Only a handful of players, maybe fewer, could ever claim to have equal billing in a match featuring Jonah Lomu – but Joeli Vidiri was one of them.
The Tongan kid who changed rugby forever, and the Fijian bloke who scored tries for fun: for a few years in the late 1990s, the Jonah and Joe show was the hottest ticket in New Zealand rugby. Stephen Donald used to sit on the grass bank at Pukekohe Stadium and watch that show every chance he got. So did Kieran Read. At a time when the National Provincial Championship still got the blood boiling and the crowds on their feet, the two wingers were the headline act.
Even in death one of them remains a headline act, while the other, still very much living, sadly feels like a footnote, which is much less than he deserves. Not that he would complain. To be in the presence of Joeli Vidiri today is to feel shrouded in an otherworldly grace – a grace comprised entirely of contentment and humility. With just a smile, he can make the world feel better. He flashes that smile often, and at everyone. He flashes it six days a week at Mitre 10 Mega in Pukekohe.
Pukekohe in the middle of winter, 1994, when Colin Lawrie Fields were mostly ankle deep mud and a cold rain fell under yellow lights at Tuesday and Thursday training. This was Joeli’s landing place, a world away from the sultry Fijian heat and the rich red Melanesian dirt. It was rugby that brought him here or, more accurately, the rugby club. He was 21 then, weighing in at 100 kilograms and standing just shy of six foot five. Over the next six seasons, hundreds of players would confront those statistics, and lose.
If Jonah was the ever-present danger, Joeli was the unknown quantity. That’s not to say his extraordinary set of skills had somehow flown under the radar, it’s just that with Joeli you could never quite pick where he was going to be. One moment he would be hovering in back play, the next he was hitting the line at full pace. Not many people got a hand to him in those situations. He played as if he saw the future.
He wanted his future to be with the All Blacks, but his devastating form for Counties and the Blues through the first two years of rugby’s professional era in 1996 and 1997 went unrewarded. He had already represented Fiji and therefore had to wait out a mandatory three-year eligibility stand-down. There is no doubt – at least there should not be – that were it not for IRB regulations, he would have been an All Blacks star in those two years. In 1998 he won Commonwealth Games gold in Kuala Lumpur with the New Zealand Sevens team, and that same year he made his All Blacks debut, replacing Jonah Lomu in a test against England, scoring a try.
Scoring tries was his stock in trade. In his 61 appearances for the Blues he scored 43 of them. For Counties the record was even better (71 appearances, 56 tries). His hat-trick against Waikato in the 1997 NPC semifinal stands as one of the great performances in provincial history. That’s saying something, considering he scored four against Canterbury in the semifinal a year earlier.
It’s hard to say for how long Joeli Vidiri had been suffering from the kidney disease that would prematurely end his career in 2001. Instead, struggling to maintain his fitness levels, he suffered from the usual stereotypes of the time. As Sir John Kirwan notes in the Scratched episode embedded above, it was easier for people to put his lack of conditioning down to laziness. There is an implication inherent in that statement, one that reflects a time when wingers like Joeli Vidiri, Marika Vunibaka and Paula Bale were considered, in the New Zealand context at least, “flavour players”.
As it was, Vidiri played just twice for the All Blacks. Australia claimed victory in his final outing, doubt claimed victory over his future selection, kidney disease claimed victory over his playing career. Dialysis would leave his arms disfigured, but keep him alive. Family faith would prevent him from going through with his first chance at a transplant. His mother’s concerns proved too much for her devoted son to deal with. It would be many years later before another donor was found.
Today he is still a giant. He moves with the same grace, a silent stealth. It’s not the threatening kind it was on the park. You can feel his warmth approach before you turn to see the smile. He is heavier, older, wiser, but no richer. It seems not to matter to Joeli. As far as the locals are concerned he will always be revered in Pukekohe.
And as long as the yellow lights illuminate the cold winter rain on Colin Lawrie Fields, you’ll find Big Joe somewhere around the club. There will be a moment when his eye catches an old photo of himself, and for the briefest of moments you’ll see what might have been flash across his face.
And then, it’s gone.
Watch the Joeli Vidiri episode, and all other episodes of Scratched: Aotearoa’s Lost Sporting Legends, here. Made with the support of NZ On Air.
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