Drua’s golden boy | The rise of Iosefo Masi

Iosefo Masi sprints away for a try for Fijian Drua against Moana Pasifika during the Super Rugby clash at Churchill Park in Lautoka. Picture: BALJEET SINGH

Iosefo Masikau Baleiwairiki became a household name after delivering a sensational performance at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

After making a name for himself in 7s, Masi is turning heads in the Super Rugby Pacific competition.

His hat-trick against the Moana Pasifika brought fans to their feet as they gave Fiji’s latest sensation a standing ovation.

The Fiji Times People column is very popular as stories from that column inspire a lot of readers.

After the letters to the editors and sports column, the People column is my favourite.

The stories and literature from the column, educate, motivate, enrich and inspire the mind.

While the column is a hit on paper, Masi is a hit on the field. It’s hard to see such a famous and star player being so humble.

But that’s one quality which keeps many of our Fijian players going.

Masi is a huge inspiration to many – not only those who are vying for a place in the national team, but those who are planning to pursue studies, while taking part in sports.

The principles that govern Masi’s life are simple. His advice to Fijians has also been simple – always put God first into everything and whatever you do, and work hard in life.

Masi is a firm believer that hard work will always be rewarded, although it takes time.

Watching him play and then mingle around freely with fans, I have realised how humble and down-to-earth he is, and that he has not been carried away with the gold medal from the Olympic Games and his success and fame as a result of his sterling performance for the Swire Shipping Fijian Drua.

Masi, who hails from the Garden Island, has done his parents – Atonio Kawakawa and Aqela Nukunawa – proud.

His achievements and success in Tokyo brought tears to their eyes, and made them realise that their dream of seeing their son don the national jumper and win something big for the national 7s team had been fulfilled. Masi attended primary and secondary school in Taveuni.

After completing studies at Holy Cross College, he joined Suva Grammar School in 2016, and the Lions lost to Ratu Meli Derenalagi’s QVS brigade in the Deans U18 quarter-final.

In 2017, he went to Nasinu Secondary School, and he played rugby league for Nasinu.

The side lost to RKS in the U19 rugby league semi-final. His U19 rugby union team also lost to Lelean Memorial School in the quarter-final.

Hence, Masi did not have a colourful career at secondary school level, unlike his gold medal winning colleagues – Ratu Meli Derenalagi, and Jiuta Wainiqolo and Sireli Maqala who won the U18 Deans Cup with QVS and RKS in 2016, 2017 and 2018, respectively.

Masi enrolled at the Fiji National University in Koronivia under the program Bachelor of Science in Forestry, and he graduated in 2022.

Masi was not present during the graduation because he had joined Australian National Rugby League (NRL) club North Queensland Cowboys.

It wasn’t an easy journey for Masi after he left his parents in Taveuni to further his studies in Suva.

However, his adorable family continued to pray for him and urged him to focus on his studies. Masi met a lot of challenges in life, but he faced them alone as he kept on working towards his goals.

The old adage that “children are successful in life when they listen to their parent’s advice and work towards their goals” came true for Masi who had to make endless sacrifices to play rugby, while doing his studies as attendance at FNU was taken seriously.

Masi was asked to join the Suva U-20 rugby team by former coach Sakaraia Labalaba, and he played alongside flanker Ratu Meli Derenalagi and half-back Simione Kuruvoli.

In 2019, Masi played for Serevi Selection U19 team at the Coral Coast 7s tournament at Lawaqa Park with other rugby names such as Temo Mayavanua, Timoci Tavatavanawai, who has been impressive for the Moana Pasifika, and Viliame Suwawa.

Masi was drafted into the Tabakau 7s team where he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Beniamino Vota, Jone Vota, Daniele Cakaunivalu, Setefano Cakau, Petero Nakelevanua, Netani Tavo, Terio Tamani, Leo Naikasau, Luke Lutunavanua and legendary Fiji and Naitasiri player Nasoni Rokobiau.

He won the 2020 44th Fiji Bitter Marist 7s tournament with Tabadamu who beat favourites Police White 22-19.

Masi, who was sin-binned in the 4th minute of play for tackling a man on the ground, scored two tries for Tabadamu. In 2021, he was part of the Fiji Shadow side, which was crowned the new champion of the Fiji Bitter Sapphire Marist 7s, after defeating defending champions Tabadamu 31-14.

He also played for the Seremaia Bai coached Eastern Saints side who won the Koroturaga Shield against Navy.

During the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Masi fractured his hand against Japan and missed the games against Canada and Great Britain, but he was back against Australia, Argentina and the All Black 7s.

In 2021, Masi signed with the North Queensland Cowboys in the National Rugby League on a train and replacement contract.

He trained with the Cowboys NRL squad and played the Townsville Blackhawks in the Queensland Cup in 2022.

He joined the Drua and since then has been a key man for the Mick Byrne-coached outfit.

As the Drua plays the Queensland Reds today at the HFC Bank Stadium, Masi’s name will be on the lips of many fans as they will cheer him and the boys, bidding for a win against the Reds which beat the side 27-24 earlier.

Based on his rock-solid and stellar performance, Masi has booked a ticket to the Rugby World Cup 15s tournament. He is passionate and humble, and his simplicity, behaviour and attitude has inspired many.

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