“Give me hope Joeli!” The crowds at Eden Park would chant the song, waiting for the magic moment when the Fijian winger would snatch the ball and sprint down the side of the field to touch down in the corner.
Joeli Vidiri was an undisputed crowd favourite, known for his stunning tries and ability to out-run almost any defence.
So it came as a shock to all when Joeli was forced to withdraw from all rugby in 2001 following a diagnosis of kidney failure.
Fast track 14 years and Joeli is now the proud recipient of a new kidney, he’s back to work at Mitre 10 Mega and he’s savouring each day as a gift. Today Joeli shares his journey from the highlands of Fiji to the suburbs of Pukekohe.
The man who became one of the faces of Auckland’s rugby prowess was born in a small village in the Nausori Highlands of Fiji, where he lived with his mother, grandmother and older sister.
It’s a swath of hills, grassland and villages in the middle of the main island Viti Levu. Joeli boarded at the local primary school during the week and returned to his mother, grandmother and sister on the weekend. In 1987, when he was 14, Joeli’s world was shaken by the death of his older sister in a car accident. A year later he moved to Matavatucou to board at Queen Victoria School.
“It was pretty hard, we were close. I was going through some tough times,” Joeli recalls almost four decades later.
He remembers spending his days out on the high school rugby field with teammates, swapping stories about their favourite All Blacks and dreaming of meeting them.
One friend in particular was enamoured with the legendary Michael Jones.
“When I was with the Blues, I got a picture with Michael and came back to Fiji to give it to him,” said Joeli, laughing at the memory. “He was so jealous.”
It was during high school that Joeli’s talent was picked up nationally and internationally – the Fiji 7s team selected him in 1993 and 1994 before Rod Ketels, the former All Black prop and athlete manager, recruited Joeli to come play in NZ.
Seeing the opportunity, Joeli bid his family an emotional farewell at Nadi Airport early on a Saturday morning. Three hours later, he touched down on a cold and wet Auckland winters day. That afternoon, Joeli was straight onto the field playing a full game with the Pukekohe Reserves and half a game with the Premiere grade.
By Monday, he’d had his first training with Counties Manukau and on Wednesday, he was selected for travel down to play the Steelers in Tauranga.
It was Ross Cooper, former Counties coach, who made the call to bring Joeli in to his travelling team – much to the team and board’s frustration. But at the final whistle nobody could discount Joeli’s impact on the game – he scored a hat trick of tries against the Steelers.
It was the start of a special rugby career that would extend in to the professional era of Blues and Super Rugby. In 1996, Joeli was playing alongside his heroes at the Blues: the Brooke brothers, Sean Fitztpatrick, Eroni Clarke and, of course, Michael Jones.
“To be among that class of players, to be in that environment – wow. It was completely different.”
Not only was Joeli making his mark at the NPC level, he was also selected for the NZ 7s team, winning gold at the 1998 Commonwealth Games, and the All Blacks, earning two caps.
Then came the diagnosis that brought Joeli’s career to a halt. His kidney was failing and all rugby had to stop. His days began revolving around dialysis and rest while he waited for a kidney match for 14 years.
Then in May this year, Joeli received a call at 3am that would forever change his future. His mother, who was visiting from Fiji, joined her son as they travelled in to Auckland to receive a new kidney.
“Over the years, I gave my life to the Lord,” said Joeli. “The people around me, my pastors and friends, we asked God for a new kidney. After years of waiting, as the bible tells us, God’s timing is always perfect.
“I really thank God for the people around me who helped me through that time, I was very humbled by the support from all over the world.”
It’s been more than four months since the transplant and while progress is slow, Joeli is seeing improvements each day. He’s returned to work at Mitre 10 mega and is enjoying each morning, when he can get up and join his mates at work.
Joeli is also getting his sporting fix by helping coach the Pukekohe Rugby Club as well as the Counties Manukau 7s team for the past five years. His daughter plays netball and his son has taken up his father’s sport.
“My son, he’s got some talent,” he said. Not surprising considering the sporting genes he inherited.
“I enjoyed my time with rugby, I have no regrets. At the moment, I’m just looking forward to work and watching my kids grow up.”