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How moving to Queanbeyan in ’73 changed Fijian boy Samuela ‘Sammy’ Vucago’s life

How moving to Queanbeyan in ’73 changed Fijian boy Samuela ‘Sammy’ Vucago’s life

By Teca Vucago and Holly Winchester

Fifty years ago a young and incredibly talented Fijian man was scouted while playing soccer in the 1973 Oceania Nations Cup.

The draft would change the course of his life and lead to an incredible story of strength, friendship and family. Overcoming language and cultural barriers, racism and isolation from family and friends to chase a football dream. This is our father Samuela ‘Sammy’ Vucago.


Drafted to play for Monaro (now commonly known as Monaro Panthers), he was proudly part of an exclusive group of the first Islander athletes introduced to play sport in Australia. He would go on to achieve extraordinary sporting and personal accomplishments at an age when most were still finding their feet. 

The Fijian National Soccer Squad, 1971.

Dad’s competitiveness was borne from being one of five boys in a large Fijian family from the village of Nadi, and also brother to one lucky (or unlucky) sister. Having to scrap for basic needs, Sammy always had a clear understanding that life ahead would be challenging. At a young age he realised his natural sporting ability would be able to provide him with opportunities and dreams beyond his small village, through soccer, rugby union and eventually rugby league.

Dad started making representative teams from primary school, excelling in soccer when he made the Fijian National Schoolboy side in 1969. He toured New Zealand and New Caledonia for the 1971 South Pacific Games and eventually made the opens Fijian National side at the age of 19.

Sammy Vucago accepting the Nadi Premier League Trophy.

It was during the 1973 Oceania Nations Cup, in a game against Canberra City, that dad, alongside our uncle Keni Kawaleva, would be drafted to the Monaro side.

Dad and Keni would be the first Fijians to be drafted into the Monaro squad, and Uncle Keni would go on to play in the National Soccer League (NSL) for Canberra City, proudly holding the title of being the first Fijian to play in the NSL. Not forgetting, amid all his soccer duties, dad was also playing representative rugby union (15 a side) for the Nadi Province, a competition equivalent to the NRC.

On dad’s trip back to Fiji last year he and uncle Keni were inducted into the Fiji FA Legends Club by the Fiji Football Association.


Keni Kawaleva with Sammy Vucago in 1972.

When Monaro brought Dad and uncle Keni over they moved them into a small apartment on Macquoid Street, which was the main street at the time. Dad was just 19 and uncle Keni was 20. Anyone who grew up in Queanbeyan in the late 1970s and early 80s will tell you that dad and uncle Keni were two of the quickest, talented, most reckless and most competitive men you’d ever meet. 

Dad’s rugby journey in Australia all really happened on a whim. It was a crisp winter Saturday in 1974, when dad and uncle Keni had finished work early and decided to go watch the Whites play. Singa Langi spotted ‘the two Fijian blokes who play soccer’ and asked if they’d like to play reserve grade as they were short players. They both said ‘okay’ and went on to have two successful seasons donning the white and sky blue.

The Whites also at this time also had a basketball team who played in the ACT competition. Sammy of course decided he would join this team too. Training was at the Ross Road basketball courts (where the QBN Respite Centre will soon be built). This meant he was now playing rugby union on Saturdays, soccer on Sundays, training for basketball on Mondays, playing basketball on Wednesdays and back to training for rugby union. His fitness levels must have been off the charts. 

Sammy Vucago playing for the Queanbeyan Kangaroos circa 1978.

In 1976, Queanbeyan Kangaroos football legends Bill Sullivan and Col Barry would soon hear of the ‘talented Fijian rugby player’ and offer for him to ‘come and play and get paid’ – the going rate at that time was approximately $20 per game. Dad would go on to play over 100 games for the Roos and make every single final series, but a Grand Final trophy would evade him, going down to Blues in his last grand final as Captain Coach in 1981.

Rugby league suited dad’s style of playing, he enjoyed the physicality, leadership and his attacking skills, and the freedom of the game gave him the vision to set up and score tries. Dad’s representative honours would further extend to the 1978 Monaro Team and 1979 Country Team (for those old enough to remember, these tournaments pre-date what is now State of Origin).

Sammy Vucago playing Country Rugby League 1979. Source: Getty Images.

Dad’s love for rugby league extended off field to the tight-knit Queanbeyan community. His Roos family would eventually become our village and among those legends would be the first captain that dad played under, Noel Cummins, committee members John Carruthers and Ian Turner, and sponsors at the time Fred and John Young.

1981 would be dad’s standout year when his better half and the best woman in the universe – our mum Kasa Vucago – would arrive in Australia. He had just taken on the captain-coaching role and was being recognised by the NRL’s first ever proposed Canberra side: the Raiders.

Sammy Vucago (third row, fourth from left) with the Canberra Raiders’ inaugural 1982 team.

The final chapter in celebrating dad’s sporting achievements was making the squad for Canberra’s very first ARL (Australian Rugby League) team the Canberra Raiders in 1982. He and Roos alumni Peter Elliot, Chris O’Grady, Jimmy Antonakis and Robert ‘Chook’ Warner were picked straight off the bat – no trials needed. Dad would go on to play three seasons with Canberra Raiders from 1983-1985 before retiring.

During all of these years, dad was also busy raising a young family in our Crinoline Street home in Queanbeyan. Teca was born in 1982, Finau in 1984, Jane in 1985 and Sammy Jnr in 1987. Dad also worked as a crane operator, working on major ACT developments such as New Parliament House, the High Court of Australia and the National Gallery. 

Sammy with family and friends at his 70th birthday celebration.

Dad and Keni Kawaleva would remain close friends for the next 50 years. Keni went on to raise his family, Eleni and Keni Jnr, in their home in Karri Crescent for over 30 years. He worked in many trades over the decades, first the post office, then as a steel fixer, a taxi driver and now a house painter. He continued on to play soccer for Canberra City in the Phillip’s League here in Australia, the equivalent to the now A-League. 

You’ll now find Sammy at his second home – Campbell and George – out of Mum’s hair, happily retired, cheering on his beloved Sharks or having a punt on the racing. He stays active by playing with grandson Jimmy and lawn bowls with his many friends.

2022 Queanbeyan Bowling Club, Men’s Pairs.

Dad, we thank you for taking this incredibly rewarding risk. It’s been challenging, but our family is definitely richer and more blessed with our little village that you and Mum have created. We are incredibly lucky to grow up with the family that surrounds us.

Thank you for teaching us our core values, being honest, trusting, valuing our own self-worth and working hard. You have taught everyone around you the importance of being respectful, loyal, encouraging us to grab all the opportunities that have been thrown our way. Dad, we hope the sacrifices you made were worth it, we certainly do. Congratulations on your Golden Anniversary.

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About the Author: Holly Winchester

Part Jennifer Coolidge, part Jennifer Garner (gaudy and geeky), Holly idolises Dolly Parton and Princess Di and loves NRL. When she's not creating killer content, you’ll find Holly at the Maccas drive thru getting her chai latte fix or buying 1990s memorabilia for the walls of her Googong home. Specialist subject: the Woolies carpark.