Pita Gus Sowakula might be playing in a losing team, but the 25-year-old Chiefs No.8 is stamping his mark on Super Rugby and has his eyes on an All Blacks prize.
The Chiefs are winless in seven games and will need a big performance if they’re to beat the Hurricanes in Wellington on Saturday night.
Fiji born and raised Sowakula came into rugby less directly than many of his peers, and he was in New Zealand chasing another sporting dream long before he became a Chief.
Pita Gus Sowakula has made the back of the Chiefs scrum his own, showing off his prowess against the Crusaders in Hamilton last weekend, and assistant coach Neil Barnes is excited about his prospects.
“He’s got a very good ball carry which you’d expect from a lot of Fijians but he has a point of difference in the fact he’s such a big defender. He has a massive engine and works hard and defends going forward and back. If anyone makes line breaks he’s one player that works really hard to get back. It’s his ability to keep running and defend all game long that makes him stand out.”
However, it was on the basketball court, rather than the rugby field, where Sowakula got his first big break.
He was picked in the Fiji national team as a teenager and ended up playing for Otago in 2014.
“Yeah it was fun, meeting up and playing with all those big tall guys and great basketball players and packing out the stadium with fans in Dunners (Dunedin) every weekend.”
At six foot five and 110 kilograms, it’s not surprising he’s good at basketball, but it’s not just Sowakula’s physical size that Chiefs first-five Aaron Cruden covets.
“Oh you’ve got to love a good moustache don’t ya. Being a guy who can’t really grow facial hair that well, you look at a guy like that with a little bit of jealousy, a little bit of envy in your eyes.”
Sowakula would later be selected in the Fiji rugby sevens squad, but opted to chase his hoops dreams instead, winning silver with the Fiji basketball team at the 2015 Pacific Games.
“I was in both the basketball and sevens squad that year, but I chose basketball and it was an amazing experience to win a medal and I got a scholarship out of it, which I was supposed to go to.”
That scholarship was at Iowa Central Community College, but it fell through at the last minute.
That’s when Sowakula decided to focus on rugby and he ended up at the Taranaki academy in 2016, where he was moved out of the forwards and on to the wing.
“It was pretty tough at times because the wings often just stand on the side waiting for the ball. I love running and love contact so I missed the forwards. The weather was a real challenge for me too, my first time playing rugby in the cold,” he said with a laugh.
Sowakula wasn’t left freezing out wide for long and was soon back among the loosies, where he’s been impressing with the Chiefs.
Though he didn’t always want to be a No.8, with his favourite player a former All Black first-five.
“My main man was Dan Carter, because he is a left footed kicker and I’m a left footer too and loving kicking as well. So I would always say growing up that I was going to be like Dan Carter haha.”
Sowakula, who writes ‘Mum’ and ‘Family’ on his wrist strapping, is confident he could nail an in game clearing kick and Chiefs forwards coach Barnes shares that belief.
“Hahaha, I have not seen it, but I’ve got no doubt he could do it haha, he’s a man of many talents.”
And Barnes has been a welcome recipient of some famous Fijian hospitality.
“He did serve us up a kava night after the Crusaders game which was well recieved by the boys. Very inclusive is Pita Gus, Liam Messam (former All Black and Chiefs forward) never invited me to one of his sessions haha.”
Sowakula made himself unavailable for Fiji at last year’s World Cup signalling his intentions to seek All Black selection.
“If New Zealand (All Blacks) offers me a spot then I would probably take that, for the development of my game and to help set up and look after my family. But if that doesn’t happen then I’d love to play for Fiji one day.”
If he continues to be a shining light in a tough season for the Chiefs, his international debut might come sooner rather than later.