I was 18 months old when I arrived in Australia with my family from Fiji in 1977. I was a big little boy. Size is a Civoniceva trait. Today, my father, Petero Snr, is 1.98 metres (six feet six inches) tall and weighs 130 kilograms, five centimetres (or two inches) taller and 20 kilos heavier than me. Petero Snr was one of Fiji’s most promising young rugby union players – he was a hard-running and tough-tackling second-rower – when in 1977 the Redcliffe Demons rugby club invited him to join them in the Brisbane competition to stiffen up their pack. He considered the offer a chance to give himself and his family a better life, and he brought my mother Tima and me (called Junior by my family to distinguish me from Dad) to live in Australia. I’ve often wondered how life for all of us would have worked out if Dad hadn’t taken up the offer. It was much more than a chance to play rugby in Australia; it was the offer of a lifetime, because it was an opportunity to give his family a better life.
I have no memories of being a baby in my homeland . . . all I have are photographs that Mum took of me, in our village by the sea. After we moved to Redcliffe, Mum tried to maintain our Fijian heritage. When they first arrived in Australia, she and Dad spoke Fijian in the house, although they didn’t insist that my sisters (Lily was born in 1978, Lusi in 1982, both at Redcliffe Hospital) and I learn the language. We could talk with my parents and understand what they were saying, but we’ve never been fluent. I’m proud of my heritage, but before long Mum and Dad embraced Australia and its culture and thought it best to speak English at home.
I never really knew my grandparents on Dad’s side, as he had a tough upbringing, but Mum’s parents played an integral role in my young life, when we visited them in Fiji or they came to stay with us in Redcliffe. Virisilia and Saloisa’s life revolved around church and family. Just by being themselves, they set a good example for my sisters and me. They were loving, sweet-natured people, like my mother. They were very supportive for Mum when her world collapsed in 1983 when Dad went to prison.
My grandfather Saloisa worked for the council and was a coach and administrator in Suva rugby union. He took a shine to Dad when he played in the provincial Suva rugby union competition, and it was through Saloisa that Dad met Mum at a rugby function. My grandparents were extremely fit. Cancer took Saloisa a few years back, but Virisilia is still going strong and runs a market stall in her town of Lami.
Mum’s strong nature is not all she inherited from her parents. People can’t believe how fit she is for her age, which is approaching 60. She does hard physical work in her longtime job as a cleaner at Redcliffe Hospital, and also takes classes at the local gym.
Dad’s battered football rivals would have been surprised to know it, but at home he was gentle, loving and funny. Early on he worked as a bouncer, then he managed bars and bottle shops around Redcliffe. He trained and played for the Redcliffe Demons rugby union team in his spare time. To help him provide for us, Mum slogged long days at the hospital, starting at 6 am.
Dad would have played for the Fijian national side had he not come to Australia, and he took up where he left off at the Demons. No doubt about it, he had an aura. There was his immense size, the rampaging runs he made and the tackles that skittled the opposition. His reputation as a hard man was justified.
I was seven in 1983 when I told Dad I really wanted to play rugby union like him and, against Mum’s wishes, he got me a game with his club’s under-12s. I was the youngest kid on the field by about five years and although I was tall for my age, I was a midget compared to the other players. Naturally, I was picked where they stick all the little kids, at halfback. At training just before my first match against the reigning premiers, Everton Park, my teammates kept talking about the opposition’s best, biggest and baddest player. They were terrified of this kid.
I wish I was able to tell you that I took him on and came out on top. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. From the kick-off, he singled me out. The match was only minutes old when he ran at me, over me, and slammed the ball down between the posts. I picked myself up, humiliated, busted and spitting clumps of dirt and grass, and burst into tears. Dad, standing on the sideline, thought this was hilarious. When he stopped laughing, he sternly motioned to me to stop bawling and get back into the game. I was intimidated by the tough guy in the other team but totally terrified of my father, so I did.
I guess Dad figured that it was better for me to learn sooner rather than later that rugby is a hard and unforgiving game. I learned something else that day: that I loved playing football.
One rainy winter’s night that same year, 1983, Dad was driving me home after I had watched him play when our world disintegrated. Dad was obeying the speed limit, which seemed to annoy the driver of the car behind, who began blasting his horn and flashing his high-beam headlights. Dad didn’t panic and stayed right on the speed limit. Next thing we knew, the car had knocked into our back bumper. My father pulled over and stopped the car. The vehicle behind stopped too. Dad got out, and so did the driver and his passenger.
We learned later that it was a middle-aged man and his adult son. There was an argument, push and shove, and a fight broke out. Dad was protecting himself and me and the two men were treated in hospital for broken bones, cuts, bruises and concussion.
However, they pressed criminal charges on the grounds that he had used undue force on them. In a court case that was front-page news because of Dad’s football fame, he was found guilty and sent to jail for two years. This tore our family apart and left Mum to raise three little kids alone. Dad being in prison was extremely hard on Mum. She worked her usual long hours at the hospital and did overtime as well to earn a little more to feed and clothe us and pay the bills. We were able to see Dad in jail because of the generosity of his boss Michael McCaffery. Michael would give up his weekends with his own family to drive us up to the prison for visits. To repay his kindness, Mum asked if she could do Michael’s housekeeping once a week. Michael said this would be all right, then still paid her for her work (and often gave her more) as his way of helping Mum financially.
We counted the days until Dad was released and could come home to us, but when he did he had changed. It was as if all the fun and sweetness that we loved had been beaten out of him. He was very quiet and introspective and distant with Mum and us children. He rejoined the Redcliffe Demons, but he also began working as a bouncer at hotels and clubs and not coming home until the early hours. Security can be a tough job. The pubs could be wild.
I loved my father very much and was very happy to have him back with us, even if he was different from before. I always went with him to watch him play for the Demons on weekends. The Demons’ home ground was Dalton Park at nearby Clontarf, and there and at the other rugby union ovals of Brisbane I saw some wonderful players at their peak, such as the Wallabies’ Roger Gould, Michael Lynagh, Andrew Slack, Rod McCall, and, a little later, Tim Horan and John Eales.
Before and after the main game, all the kids would charge onto the field and play touch footy. For a time I was the Demons’ sand boy. I was so proud to run out onto the field with my little tin can of sand so the goal-kicker could tip some onto the grass and build a mound from it. That’s to say, I was proud, right up until the moment when, in the dying moments of a tight game, I ran the sand out to the kicker for the match-winning penalty kick but tripped so that both I and the sand went flying. As I tried to put the sand back into the tin, I could have dug a hole right there on Dalton Park and crawled in. Thankfully, the penalty kick was successful.
My friend Rupert McCall, who is a poet and staunch Redcliffe rugby and rugby league man, has a regular column in U On Sunday magazine in Brisbane’s Sunday Mail. In August 2011, he reminisced about the old days watching the Redcliffe Demons play at Dalton Park, when my dad packed down in the second row and Rupert and I, both of us about seven or eight (Rupert a bit older than me), were entrusted with the glorious job of working the scoreboard. There are bits of Rupert’s article that are far too kind, but he captures better than I ever could the way it was:
“I sat next to the kid called Petero on that old scoreboard, our eyes fixed firmly on the action. With every addition to the match tally, he’d leap down from our perch, land gracefully on those big feet of his, locate the correct number, then hand the tin square up to me for display.
Sunday afternoon in suburbia and a modest crowd had gathered to watch the Redcliffe Demons take on Teachers Norths. We were the boys on the scoreboard. The kings of our castle, keeping rugby followers informed for the lucrative sum of a steak burger and a Coke. Club stalwart ‘Bushy’ Mann reckoned that was fair enough for a young fella and nobody argued.
We played rugby for the local team although he was a few age groups below me. Having said that, when A-grade ended and youthful swarms flocked to the field for their touch footy ritual, ‘Junior’ carved them up no matter how old they were.
He was a halfback then but those feet. Those gigantic flippers. When he grew into them, you knew he’d be conversing with mountains. Just like the man he was watching now. The man who thundered through the Dalton Park dust like some sky-scraping behemoth. The man who brought a wife, a son and two daughters from his island to this peninsula. His father.
There was something about the kid. Like he understood the qualities that made his dad excel as a fiercely talented and loyal competitor and adopted them.
But not the temper. That warrior trait required cooling.
For a beautiful kindness that conveyed the warmth of life regardless of the situation, he drew from his mother’s well. He became the best of both of them and humility was his compass, the same as his sisters. Destined to lead, he was elected school captain in his graduating year.
The next time I saw him, his physical prophecy had been fulfilled. His body was now a match for his feet and he’d changed codes.
Whispers filtered through Dolphin Oval from the snow cone van to the can bar. The kid could be anything.
Such murmurings always sound good and yet so many of them end up in the waste basket. Muscle is one thing. Mentality is another. The muscle to continually catapult your body into the rock wall. To bend it back and thereby lay a loyal foundation for your arrows to penetrate. To hold the fort, week in, week out, year after year, season upon season.
The mentality to ache but continue. To learn from mistakes and answer critics. To get back up. To confess when you’re not at your best and drop yourself from the team, even if it costs you a national anthem.
The last time I saw him he was being honoured by his peers at a post-match function. Teammates had judged him their players’ player that night and for the entire series. From a side that had just won six Origin titles straight, the rap was epic.
His dad was at the game as well. The man he is named after. His wonderful mum Tima, and two proud sisters Lusi and Lily. His schoolyard sweetheart now wife, Bonnie, stood devotedly, flying the flag for his children. They were all beaming. Family is everything to the big man. And there he was with a smile to match.”
My father was in his element, for club rugby in Brisbane in the ’80s and ’90s was a war. When there was a fight, and no game was complete without a few, it was a real fight. Among the most furious brawls were those that erupted when the Redcliffe Demons and Brisbane Brothers played. Brothers was a prestige team bristling with Wallabies, Queensland representatives and Nudgee College old boys, while the Demons were the battlers, assembled on a shoe-string from locals, other teams’ cast-offs and the odd Fijian. Quite a few of the sons of that generation of Islander players have gone on to be prominent players in rugby and rugby league.
On the field, my dad was a wrecking ball. He was the kind of player other teams’ players and fans loved to hate. Because of his short fuse, vigorous play and having been in jail, he was the most feared player in that Brisbane competition in an era of tough guys such as Stan Pilecki, Tony Shaw, Chris Handy and Rod ‘Sergeant Slaughter’ McCall, a big Wallaby lock who would play 40 Tests for Australia and pack down in the Wallabies’ 1991 World Cup victory.
Dad always seemed to be in the centre of a blue or being cautioned or sent off, usually as a result of defending a smaller team member, or when he was baited into losing his temper by the likes of Tony Shaw or Rod McCall. In a 1988 pre-season trial, there was a skirmish at a lineout and my father clashed with McCall. It was a very short fight. Dad punched Rod McCall so hard that the Sergeant was unconscious before he hit the ground. He went down in a dead fall and landed so hard he dislocated a bone in his leg. McCall was stretchered from the field and Dad was sent off and later suspended for a record seven matches. Rod was out for 10 weeks while his leg healed and he had plastic surgery to his smashed lip.
He considered legal action against Dad, but not for long. Next time they played, all was cool between them. After that game, Rod years later told The Australian’s sports writer Wayne Smith:
“Petero [Snr] came up to me and said, ‘I think I owe you a beer’. So we had one . . . or two. He was a gentle giant. You just didn’t want to be within arm’s length of him when he snapped. There are no ill-feelings. I probably did the same thing to other people in my career. I just didn’t have the same punch.”
Today the knockout is Brisbane rugby lore, and, true to the spirit of rugby, and rugby league for that matter, when the old protagonists are reminded of the stoush each recalls it with a grin.
Although I have inherited my father’s physique, my temperament, on and off the field, is more like my mother’s. I play football hard, brutally hard at times because that’s how forwards must play, but I have a placid nature and my discipline is good. I don’t like conflict. Perhaps as well, and despite my pride in his exploits, seeing Dad getting into all that strife, being hated and booed, turned me off being a similar type of player. In 2006, Dad told Wayne Smith, ‘I had a short fuse. It was the main weakness in my game. Young Petero is totally different to me. He’s very disciplined. You have to have that tough mental approach to survive at the level he has.’
I am not a saint. I can get angry out on the field, and have done so, but unlike Dad, who preferred the Island way of resolving a dispute with his fists, I prefer to channel my frustrations into hard running and tackling. Anyway, you’re no good to anyone cooling your heels in the sin bin or, even worse, in the showers while your teammates battle on a man short.
Despite playing rugby union early on, at around age 10 rugby league won my heart. Everywhere I went I carried a league ball, making believe that I was a big-time player with the local team, the Redcliffe Dolphins.
It was when playing for Humpybong in the local primary school competition that my passion for rugby league took root. I lived and breathed that game, and I was good at it. You’d never know it today when I weigh 110 kilos, but right up until I was 18 or so, I was tall and skinny as a reed, a fast, side-stepping centre with ball skills. I hated being so thin. I felt that somehow I was letting Dad down. I wanted to be huge like him. He would tease me about my lack of bulk, and I suppose this was his way of toughening me up. If someone had told me back then that I would play front row for Queensland and Australia I would have been incredulous.
Basketball and tennis were my summer sports. Tall, thin and agile, I was built for basketball, and Dad imparted to me his love of tennis. We lived across the road from a Catholic school which had a tennis court. The priest who looked after the grounds opened the gates to let Dad and Mum and my sisters and me and other local kids onto the court. Mum was a competitive netball player who played the game for years. For as long as Dad played rugby, and that was well into his thirties, Mum played local netball.
Redcliffe is one of the great Australian rugby league clubs. When I was young, my heroes were such Dolphins stars as Arthur Beetson (who returned to Redcliffe in 1981 and would play a role in my later career), Chris Close, Bryan Niebling, Steve Bleakley, Mitch Brennan, Wally Fullerton-Smith, Trevor Benson and Ian ‘Bunny’ Pearce, who would die too young in 1993. The Dolphins’ home ground was just down the road from my house.
After I left primary school, I juggled my schoolwork at Redcliffe High with a part-time job at Coles. I kept out a small amount of my wages for pocket money and gave the rest to Mum. She never moaned about her bad fortune but I knew she was struggling. We carried on in our little weatherboard home in Anzac Avenue just down the road from Crash Corner. Our sleep was regularly interrupted by the revving of V8 engines and the screech of brakes.
The beachside community of Redcliffe was a wonderful place to grow up. I have lasting memories of long hot days and muggy twilights playing and swimming at Suttons Beach. Growing up it felt like so many kids lived in Redcliffe. There was always something to do and someone to do it with. I was a regular participant in the pick-up footy games in the parks and on the sand. I swam and fished and played tennis, cricket and basketball, I ran and I rode my pushbike around Redcliffe and up to Scarborough and all over the peninsula. I can think of no better life on this planet for my own kids.
I remember jumping off the famous Redcliffe jetty into the cool and refreshing sea and treading water while I watched to see if my mates could make as big a splash. The Redcliffe Herald was always grumbling that the local children were risking their lives hurling themselves off the pier. Naturally, that made it all the more fun. When I was 13, and just after some child had hurt himself leaping off the pier, Mum said to me, ‘Junior, do you promise me you don’t jump off Redcliffe Jetty?’ I looked her in the eye. ‘Mum, I give you my word that I would never, never, ever do that.’ Next week’s edition of the Herald had a spectacular front-page picture of a skinny teenager throwing himself off the jetty and into the water as his mates cheered. The kid was me.
That was a bad one . . . but generally I was a well-behaved boy. I was always mindful that I had a responsibility in my family and trying not to disappoint Mum or let her down. My worst regular crime was coming home late after swimming or playing football in the park. I could never drag myself away from footy. It was always ‘one more try . . . one more try . . . last try wins . . .’ and suddenly we’d realise we were playing in total darkness. If I close my eyes, I can still hear Dad’s voice, before he went away, booming out through the gloom, ‘Junior, come home!’
He had a lot of energy and was always going at 200 miles an hour. He had his moments and mucked up like all kids, but he was always a good and very responsible boy. I never doubted that he understood and was grateful for the sacrifices that were made so he and his sisters had a good life. They got on well, and stuck up for one another. The only problem for Petero about Lily and Lusi was that they were girls. I think he resented not having brothers to play footy with in our backyard and the park, on the sand and at school. He once told Lusi, ‘No offence, Sis, but I really wish you were a boy.’
When I was 14, in 1990, Dad chose to leave us. Mum, my sisters and I had to fend for ourselves. I grew up fast and became the man of the house. It was in those days when I learned that taking responsibility and caring for your loved ones was the mark of a man, more so than being a tough guy. I was determined that when I grew up and became a husband and father, I would treat my wife and children differently than Dad had treated us.
After my father walked out, there were long periods when I didn’t hear from him. I missed him badly because I loved him and, besides, a boy needs a dad. Mum was mother and father to us, and she did a wonderful job. Today I see Dad, we might talk once a week, he’ll call me or I’ll telephone him. He turns up sometimes to family gatherings, and he dotes on his grandchildren. I have never asked him if he has regrets about leaving us. I suspect he does. When he has a few beers and lets his guard down a little, he tells me things that lead me to believe that if he had his time again he might make different decisions.
Today he and I are mates. I think I have made him proud, even if I don’t always take his advice when he rings me before a game. In the bar at his home, he has hung two large pictures: one is of Muhammad Ali, and the other is of me on the charge for the Broncos.
I attended Redcliffe High School until grade 10, when I left to go to Frawley College in Scarborough, where my friend Marcus Riley went. For a while then, I was considering playing grade rugby union, like Dad, and Frawley College would develop my talents. Somehow, I’ll never know how she managed, Mum always came up with the school fees, right on time.
I completed grades 11 and 12. My schoolwork improved and my rugby gamble paid off. I hadn’t played the code since I was nine, but I joined Marcus in trying out for the junior rep sides and, amazingly, as a lock and flanker, I made the Brisbane side. Marcus and I were then both selected in the Queensland under-16 merit team.
I’d known Bonnie Chisholm from school athletics. She lived in Scarborough, a few kilometres up the peninsula, with her parents and four younger siblings. Her father Peter ran a successful drilling business and her mother Terri worked at the local ANZ Bank. Bonnie was a fine all-round athlete who made various state athletics, netball and softball teams, as did her sisters Kasey, Chelsea and Ellie. Her brother Zac was a top young league player who would play rugby league with Redcliffe and junior grade with the Brisbane Broncos.
Like me, Bonnie went on to attend Frawley College and when I saw her at orientation I remembered her. While I worked part-time at Coles, Bonnie had a weekend job at Chandlers electrical and music store. We always said hi at school and in the street. I was very keen on her. One day, midway through grade 11, I summoned the courage to ask her to meet me for lunch. She said yes. We got on. For a while, we were just good friends, with neither of us really thinking our friendship would blossom into romance.
In grade 12, Bonnie and I were appointed the captains of our school. She was excellent academically and at sports and a model citizen in the school community, so thoroughly deserved the honour. Me . . . I’m not so sure. I was an enthusiastic kid at school, and enjoyed it, and I could play rugby union, but I was average academically, an upstart from a public school who had only been at Frawley a year. I think quite a few of the students were having a gee-up when they proposed me as school captain.
I couldn’t believe it when the votes were counted and my name was read out. Kids with greater claims to the school captaincy than me, brainier kids, kids who had been groomed to be leaders, were, I reckon, justifiably disappointed. Bonnie backed me all the way, and made it clear she thought we’d be a good team. That cemented our relationship. We started dating. We didn’t tell a soul. As the year went on, I guess it was obvious to everyone that Bonnie and I were together.
The first time I was aware of Petero was when we were kids competing at athletics carnivals around Redcliffe and Scarborough. We became friends when we were in years 11 and 12. What struck me was how all the girls had a crush on him, a sweet-natured, skinny boy with the biggest smile. It was a complete shock when he took me out to a Sizzlers and he held my hand. I had no idea he liked me. He confessed that he’d had a crush on me for quite some time but hadn’t had the courage to tell me. Clearly that night our relationship moved to a higher level.
It took him a while to meet my parents. Dad would see him standing out on the street or just happening to jog past and say, ‘When will that boy come in and say hello?’ Eventually he did, and they fell in love with him. Petero was always a little worried about the black–white thing and how my parents would react. That has never been a problem for me or my family. Back then he was always imagining that when we were out together people were wondering what a dark-skinned boy was doing with a white-skinned girl.
I will never forget the first time I met Petero’s father, Petero Snr. Petero and I had just turned 18 and could go to pubs, and we went to one where Senior was bouncing. We walked up the steps, then I heard heavy footsteps inside, the front door burst open and a huge man was ejecting a poor man who flew through the air like a cartoon character and landed in the street. Petero said, ‘That’s my father.’ I was terrified. Senior, of course, was warm and gentle. He has that incredible mix of gentleman and warrior. Petero has it too.
I did well enough academically in year 12, considering the fact that I was playing rugby for the school on Saturdays, rugby league for the Redcliffe Dolphins juniors on Sundays and training most days in between.
As well as the Queensland representative rugby team, I was picked in the Queensland under-17 rugby league team. This meant a lot to me, because when I was younger I had always missed out on representative selection. I was so envious of the kids who had been picked when they swanned around with their maroon kitbags with the big Q on the side. I wanted one of those bags so bad. Making the state sides at age 16 was a dream come true. Here’s a lesson I feel qualified to pass on: never give up. I coped with disappointment and persevered, and learned my trade.
When I was in the Queensland under-17 rugby league team in my final year of school, we played New South Wales under-17s at the Sydney Football Stadium as a curtain-raiser to a State of Origin match. I decided I’d stalk the Queensland Origin side to get all their autographs. After the game, a couple of us followed our heroes to the bright lights of Kings Cross and, even though we were under-age, we were big kids and looked older and were able to duck into the Studebaker Bar where the Maroons were celebrating. I gatecrashed their gathering and my heroes signed my napkins and coasters . . . Wally Lewis, Peter Jackson, Allan Langer, Trevor Gillmeister . . . I got them all. Mum still has them at home.
On weekends, right after playing junior league, I would go to watch the Redcliffe Dolphins play. They were my team, and I planned to play for them some day. I also admired the Southern Suburbs side. Souths were the number one team and their champion centre Mal Meninga was my favourite player. Someone bought me a copy of Mal’s autobiography, Big Mal, and I kept that dog-eared book in my schoolbag for a year as inspiration. It will come as no surprise to tell you that today I’m still a huge fan of Big Mal, as Queens-land coach and as a man.
There’s a funny side to my relationship with Mal Meninga. I guess, somehow in my mind, I have turned him into a father figure. When I see Mal, I see my dad. They have both influenced my life and they look a bit the same: both huge, dark-skinned men with big bushy eyebrows and an imposing aura. When they walk into a room, heads turn and the joint goes quiet.
It’s amazing to think that I have a strong bond I hope will last our lifetimes with the man I once gazed at in awe from the grandstands when I was a boy. To think I played under his coaching in some of Queensland’s greatest State of Origin triumphs. To think that we’re mates. To this day, when I see his name come up on my mobile when he is on for a chat or when he singles me out for a one-on-one talk in Origin camp, it gives me a thrill. Memories of being a kid with his book in my bag come flooding back.
Petero being the guy he is has never told me how he felt about me when he was a boy. Now I know about the autobiography in his bag, and how he considered me a father figure from afar, I can only say I’m happy if in any small way I have played a part in that boy growing into the man he has become.
Naturally, I’d caught the State of Origin bug and back in the late 1980s and through the ’90s, while watching the action on those wildly exciting nights, I dreamed like all Queensland kids that I would one day follow in the footsteps of Mal, Wally, Alfie Langer, Gene Miles, Rowdy Shearer, Greg Dowling and the rest. A maroon jersey became my Holy Grail. As with most things in life, vowing is the easy part, making those dreams come true is a whole lot harder.
Excerpted from Petero: My Story by Petero Civoniceva and Larry Writer. Copyright © 2012 by Petero Civoniceva and Larry Writer.
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