SAPPORO, 19 Sep - Alivereti Veitokani remembers Isi Naisarani as the "big joker" who used to wolf down food with him when everyone else was tucked up in bed at their Fijian boarding school.
But Fiji fly-half Veitokani knows that his old mate, now Australia’s first-choice number eight, poses a huge threat to his team’s chances of causing an upset in the opening Pool D match on Saturday.
"I have been watching him for the last few weeks playing for the Wallabies. He is improving. He is so strong," Veitokani said ahead of the clash in Sapporo Dome.
Naisarani, pictured above, was first exposed to rugby on the streets of Naqali when he and other barefooted youngsters used to imitate the legendary Fiji sevens players, using plastic bottles as rugby balls.
But the time he met Veitokani it was all boots and Gilberts, with the pair linking up in what must have been a formidable Ratu Kadavulevu secondary school team.
Yet while Veitokani has won eight Fiji caps in the past two years and was named his country’s sportsman of the year in 2018, Naisarani has become a star across the ocean.
In 2014, the then 18-year-old’s uncle and aunt, who were visiting from Brisbane, saw their 1.97m nephew in action and were instantly convinced he had a future in Super Rugby.
Naisarani’s rise has been rapid with the now 24-year-old winning the Melbourne Rebels’ 2019 Players’ Player of the Year award, after topping the team statistics in metres run and tackles made.
Despite Naisarani's uncompromising approach on the pitch, Veitokani knows his former school mate, who appeared in all four of Australia’s Rugby Championship matches this year, is a softie at heart.
"He is a very kind person and a very funny guy, a big joker. He was a very good student, too, although in school, we used to eat late at night together when everyone else was asleep."
The pair met up again last year and both have confirmed since being in Japan that their bond remains strong. The friendship, however, is naturally on hold until Saturday evening.
"It's going to mean a lot to me to play against Fiji," Naisarani said earlier this week. "For me to don the Wallabies jersey is a dream come true. I have been waiting so long for this opportunity."
He admitted, however, that he is only half sure that the residents of his village in Fiji will be supporting him and his team.
"Everyone back at home in Fiji is looking forward to this game. Probably they are going to go for Australia… I guess."