Sunday 18 February 2018

Joker's wild

From the sublime to the ridiculous, heavy-hitting Rupeni Caucaunibuca is ace behind Toulouse pack

Toulouse powerhouse Rupeni Caucaunibuca (left) will be a big obstacle to Leinster.
Toulouse powerhouse Rupeni Caucaunibuca (left) will be a big obstacle to Leinster.
David Kelly

David Kelly

The great entertainer, Rupeni Caucaunibuca, is back -- and it's been worth the 'weight'. He was at it again last weekend. In the midst of a Toulouse cruise against Bourgoin, Caucaunibuca combined neatly with Cedric Heymans as the aristocrats made another trademark burst.

After completing the one-two with the French full-back, the Fijian, known to all and sundry as Caucau, inevitably could not resist infusing the imminent dotting down with a decorative twist.

You can view the results yourself on YouTube; suffice to say that Caucau's grand vision was not translated into reality as his spectacular somersault begat a terrific tumble. It was not so much belly-flop as jelly roll.

And so, with the gift for prodigious, wanton carelessness that has marked arguably the most enigmatic career of the professional age, Caucau had failed in the simple act to score a try, as if sated by the ingenuity that preceded the attempt. Not since Tommy Cooper has genius and clown kept such close company.

And not since the Welsh comic have mirth and girth attracted so many awe-struck admirers throughout the global game. From Auckland to Agen, the Fijian star has wowed audiences with a talent that continues to teeter as riotously as his weight.

That he has now pitched up in Toulouse, appropriately enough as an 'injury joker' following a season-ending injury to Yann David, represents another dramatic twist in the career of the 30-year-old.

Teaming up with the no-nonsense man-manager Guy Noves would be like expecting a sustained relationship to form between Alex Ferguson and Mario Balotelli; but then, Noves did transform one-time hell-raiser Trevor Brennan into a double Heineken Cup winner.

"Guy Noves is like a father speaking to his son," Caucau said yesterday. "Guy puts me on track. When he speaks, he lets you know your responsibilities. I like his honesty, his candour. I need this working relationship to be strict."


It hasn't always been thus in Caucau's colourful career. His rap sheet runs longer than his lunch menu. Just three years after emerging from the latest in a series of remote Fijian villages in which he had spent his youth -- his father was a travelling church minister -- Caucau cast a bewitching spell over the 2003 World Cup.

He scored a marvellous length-of-the-field try against Scotland but was banned for two matches after punching Olivier Magne. Just a month later, his tortuous relationship with the Fijian authorities kicked off in earnest as he declared he would switch allegiance in order to play for the All Blacks to earn more money.

The IRB politely and quietly delineated the folly of his outburst. Two years later, he missed an international appointment against the New Zealand Maori, claiming he was showing off his new-born daughter in his home village.

He was then suspended for a year for boycotting a World Cup qualifying game against Samoa; this time, his wife provided the reasonable excuse. Toothache.

He was marked AWOL for Agen the following season, missing the first 11 games of the season after staying in Fiji, apparently detained by a bout of typhoid and the birth of his second child. He then missed a Pacific Islands clash with Wales after losing his passport.

If constant absences made the romantic heart grow fonder for the enduring eccentric, it wasn't always a cakewalk when he turned up; particularly for the cakes. In early 2007, while still with patient Agen, he tested positive for cannabis and missed three months of the season.


His ban didn't coincide with the World Cup but the Fijians left him behind in any event. The competition, a dull affair pock-marked by the then voguish sky-scraping kicks, was much the poorer for his absence.

For though his serious indiscipline marks him down as a serial recidivist, for the neutral, Caucau's influence has been worth it all. Like all the great entertainers -- Higgins, Daly, Best -- the rapt spectator must expect their flaws as much as their flair.

When Caucau first exploded on to the club circuit, he mixed with one of the best backlines ever seen in the professional game: the Auckland Blues outfit that featured 'king' Carlos Spencer at out-half, Caucau and Dougie Howlett on the wings and Sam Tuitupou and Mils Muliaina in midfield.

He won a Super 12 championship with them in 2003 but that remains his only prize in a sadly unfulfilled career; however cherished the occasional moments of class. A pitiful handful of international games, a dozen Super 14 games and 10 Heineken Cup appearances are the risible figures that render their own sorry tale of under-achievement.

His fitful career has scarcely coincided with the sport on these islands; we recall him destroying Gloucester, missing a flight for a trial at Leicester, and a quite astonishing foot-race against a stricken Brian O'Driscoll -- again, watch on YouTube -- at Lansdowne Road during the 2005-06 Heineken Cup pool match.

He has shed 15kg -- the 5' 10" star remains a hefty 110kg -- and fellow Fijian Vilimoni Delasau has cast what Noves calls a "spider's web" of protection around his fellow countryman.

"I feel like I have been here two or three years already," Caucau said yesterday, three months after his arrival. "In Toulouse, everyone is smiling and ready to help if needed. The players are like brothers. We are a real family. I want to keep playing rugby and be at my best and I would prefer to do that in Toulouse."

Anyone who delights in the sublime -- even when leavened by the occasional dollop of the ridiculous -- will hope that this most unusual of marriages can be consummated, just to see Caucau's return to the form of old.

It will be worth the weight.

Irish Independent

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