Samu Kerevi restoring pride in the family name through Australia form

In a parallel universe, Samu Kerevi could be a mainstay of the All Blacks midfield. When he was seven years old he was forced to flee a coup in the Solomon Islands and boarded a cargo plane bound for New Zealand. As fate would have it, however, the flight was diverted to Australia and though Kerevi could not speak a word of English he was provided with clothes by the Salvation Army and granted asylum to forge a life in Brisbane, where the Wallabies host Eddie Jones’s side in the second Test on Saturday.

If that sounds like a sliding-doors moment then Kerevi has had a few of them. He moved to the Solomon Islands because his grandfather – Kerevi was raised by his grandparents – was stationed there for his job with the Commonwealth. The 28-year-old had left Fiji to be with his grandfather as a young child – in part because he was born out of wedlock, and in part because his parents could not afford to raise him and his two brothers, Josua and Jone.

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It was also to escape a life of crime because back then the Kerevi name was notorious for all the wrong reasons. He talks of bank robberies, assaults and “a lot of criminal activity” that his cousins and uncles were mixed up in. “Like things out of a movie,” says Kerevi, whose cousin is about to finish a 14-year jail sentence and whose uncles have been imprisoned for more than 15 years. It was a fate awaiting Kerevi until he moved away and now it is a motivation to restore pride in the family name with performances for the Wallabies such as that which earned him the award for man of the match in the 30-28 victory in the first Test last Saturday.

“I had a pretty tough upbringing,” says Kerevi. “My mum had us pre-wedlock, pretty young, around 19-20. It was a pretty difficult situation. They weren’t in the best area and there was a lot of criminal activity. It was my grandmother’s sister’s family, they raised me up – in Fiji everyone who is older is your grandparent. [My grandfather] worked for the Commonwealth at the time and he was posted in the Solomon Islands. My older brother would go with my grandparents, I would go with another set of grandparents and my little brother stayed with my parents because financially they couldn’t support all three of us.

“Then the coup happened in 1999 or 2000 so we had to flee from the Solomon Islands. We were actually on the way to New Zealand but the plane stopped in Australia, I got a visa for asylum seekers and we ended up staying here. I didn’t really know what was going on.

Samu Kerevi looks to power through a pair of England players in Perth
Kerevi’s performance helped Australia to defeat England in the first Test. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

“For me as a kid, it was probably more of an adventure. Even leaving Fiji, I probably just thought my grandparents were just going to the beach and I was tagging along. I look back at it now and it could have been a lot more dangerous. I’m really grateful for where I am now. To be able to play for the Wallabies, it’s me giving back to a country that gave me so much.”

Since making his Australia debut against England six years ago in Brisbane, Kerevi has developed into arguably the most formidable centre in the world. That fixture remains the last match in which Australia were defeated in Brisbane – a Wallabies stronghold and a city Kerevi feels blessed to call home.

“Fiji was a really tough upbringing but we were always shielded away from a lot of it,” says Kerevi, who is poised to line up outside Noah Lolesio on Saturday with Quade Cooper expected to again miss out with a calf injury. “A lot of my older cousins are in jail, my uncles have been in jail for 15-plus years. They’re all out now and they’ve changed their lives. [My family] took me out of it because it wasn’t the greatest situation. A lot of criminal activities – bank robberies and assaults.

“As a Fijian, your family name is really important and our name on my father’s side wasn’t very good back then. Even though they all had different surnames, everyone knew them as Kerevi and that name wasn’t positive. I go home and my uncles sit me down and say how thankful they are to myself and my brothers [who also play in Japan] who have changed that family name.

“The biggest part I take from playing footy is being able to tie in that name with something positive. For me it’s really special. I know and understand the hardships that my family went through in those tough times. Being able to give back, through positivity, financially or just being there in Fiji fills a massive hole in my heart.”