Clint Gutherson, Mitchell Moses, Nathan Brown and Reed Mahoney took a trip away from the rest of the Prime Minister’s XIII. The destination? Eels teammate Maika Sivo’s home village.
The tears rolled down her cheeks. Another part of Maika was leaving again.
Wearing a floral blue dress, Mere Sivo, the mother of Parramatta cult hero Maika, was watching as four of her son’s Parramatta teammates left her small Fijian village.
Clint Gutherson, Mitchell Moses, Nathan Brown and Reed Mahoney separated from the rest of the Prime Minister’s XIII squad to visit Momi, a village along the Queen’s Highway south of Nadi where Sivo grew up.
As the bus carrying Parramatta players drove from the village, Mere’s tears welled. The temporary connection with her son had gone.
“I am so proud of Maika and what he did this year, top tryscorer,” she said through an interpreter. “I never miss Maika’s games. I miss him.”
What unfolded over the previous 45 minutes showed why we adore rugby league.
The raw emotion, passion and enthusiasm of a village in love with their very own legend.
Small kids with big smiles — some wearing NRL jumpers — took the day off school to see their Parramatta heroes. “Moses” they yelled, “Gutherson”. They ran alongside the bus, their smiles broad, their teeth blindingly white.
“Imagine when Maika comes home,” Moses says.
Momi has just 130 houses and a population of about 370, most of whom are related. They don’t have much but love what little they have.
The final 200m of the road into Mimo village is just grass.
Sivo’s simply family home is made of grey concrete and has a front porch and two rooms.
About 30 of the village are inside Sivo’s home, sitting on straw mats, when the bus pulls up. They offer a warm welcome and a prayer while a man in the front row with his legs crossed mixes a batch of kava.
Everyone is gently told to sit, take off caps and shoes. V-shaped bamboo cups are filled to the brim with kava. The players and visiting Australian media slowly drain the national drink.
Moses says: “It’s made my mouth numb but let’s have another one. Why not?”
The homes are ramshackle but full of laughter and love.
Wearing a Parramatta jumper, Sivo’s little brother Issia points out a blue weatherboard house nestled over the back where they watch every Parramatta game and call out the names of every player.
Someone has carved “Parramatta Eels” into the concrete step leading to the Sivos’ front porch.
There are selfies, group shots, hugs and high fives. One lady even pushed her face through the open window for a photo with Moses. This village had come alive.
“To see how much the game means to these people, what the game can do and all the love … everyone is running around. It’s crazy,’’ Gutherson said.
“They know all the names, they are just happy to have us here. A small thing like this can change their lives.”
There are Eels flags waving proudly outside village homes. A cab driver, acting as a chaperone for the bus, has Parramatta flags flying from both windows.
Moses tells the villagers: “Thanks for your support and thanks for supporting Parramatta.”
The only person missing was Sivo’s father Joeli, who was working.
Moses later says: “It was amazing to see how much it means to the kids, the whole family, and to see where Maika grew up and where his family still lives.
“It was a real eye-opener. His uncle has the satellite television and they all scramble in to watch our games.
“To see the support we have in such a little village, it’s something I will cherish forever.”
Fiji coach Brandon Costin added: “Every young kid in Fiji wants to play for Parramatta. What he has done is just a fairytale. You could almost make a movie out of it.
“It’s what every young kid in Fiji is buying into. They want to follow that same dream.
“Every young man wants to be able to send money home to support the village and support the community and support the family.
“That is the making of him as a man and Maika has been able to do that. He is a role model now for every young boy in Fiji who not only wants to play rugby league but also wants to serve their family.
“For our locals boys, they grew up in a village playing rugby league with a Coke bottle. Their dream has always been to play for Bati.”