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Prime Minister's diary on Fiji visit: Christopher Luxon's rugby revenge fails, his wife Amanda proves diplomatic skill

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon hoped to outdo Fijian Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka in a seven-a-side match between the New Zealand Defence Force and the Fijian military. Photo / Adam Pearse

Behind the scenes of his first trip to the Pacific, Prime Minister Christopher Luxon was on a secret mission.

A mission to avenge his beloved Crusaders, who failed to make the Super Rugby playoffs for the first time in almost a decade – at the hands of Fijian side Drua.

The result, which followed a dismal season for the Canterbury side, was raised regularly during Luxon's visit to Fiji last week, with Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka mentioning it with great joy and even gifting Luxon a Drua jersey.

Luxon was magnanimous despite the defeat, saying the result helped avoid a “diplomatic incident.”

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However, Luxon pinned his hopes on a rematch by his armed forces and one of the last clashes during his visit was a game of sevens rugby against a team from the Fijian military.

The tragic Crusaders player, however, had to wait a long time for this opportunity, as he had a packed travel schedule from his arrival from Niue on Wednesday evening to the game on Friday afternoon.

Any doubts about how Luxon would be received in Fiji quickly dissipated when the New Zealand delegation emerged from the airport and were greeted by a giant billboard with Luxon's face celebrating his visit.

It turned out to be the first of three replica billboards along the route from the airport to his accommodation, apparently to continue Luxon's warm welcome in Niue earlier in the week.

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Prime Minister Christopher Luxon drinks his kava at his welcoming ceremony in Fiji. Photo / Meta

During the traditional greeting of Luxon by Rabuka, the New Zealand Prime Minister was greeted with a customary serving of kava. This item on the programme had aroused the interest of the journalists as kava is known to have a relaxing effect and Luxon is a teetotaller.

Keen-eyed viewers may have noticed that the Prime Minister wore a slight grin as he drank. Luxon later denied any suggestion that he did not enjoy his drink.

Thursday's numerous meetings with Fijian politicians were preceded by a more business-oriented event at Tower Insurance's Suva office, where he learned about the company's presence in Fiji.

The hundreds of Tower staff probably didn't appreciate the visit as much as their bosses. Although Luxon didn't arrive until after 8am, most staff were there by 6.30am and had to leave their desktop screens on the default homepage image – which essentially meant twiddling their thumbs until the Prime Minister showed up.

Before his meeting and press conference with Rabuka later that morning, there was a brief conversation with Fiji's President Ratu Williame Katonivere. He was also given the Drua shirt as a gift, which Luxon immediately recognized as a not-so-subtle joke about the Crusaders.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon received a Fijian Drua Super Rugby jersey from Fiji's Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka. Photo / Pool
Prime Minister Christopher Luxon received a Fijian Drua Super Rugby jersey from Fiji's Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka. Photo / Pool

Luxon's gift to Rabuka was quite a success. Some were surprised to learn that the Fijian Prime Minister, a former soldier and Commonwealth Games athlete, was also an amateur harmonica player. Luxon claimed he had given a rare Hohner harmonica. Rabuka took it out of the case and played a few notes, much to Luxon's delight.

The press conference between the two went as expected. Luxon announced a trade target of $2 billion by 2030 and the abolition of a transit visa that had been in place for Fijian citizens after the coup in Fiji in 2006 and which Luxon described as a “major nuisance”.

After a brief meeting with Baron Waqa, the head of the Pacific Islands Forum, Luxon made his way to the Fiji Police Dog Centre for a much-anticipated encounter with cute police dogs in training.

When such incidents occur, the Prime Minister's staff and security are always a little nervous. It is an unpredictable environment where there is only so much he can do to minimise risk, particularly when he is inches away from animals that are still learning to curb their instinct to attack humans.

Her blood pressure must have skyrocketed when 18-month-old Scully pounced on Luxon, soiling the Prime Minister's suit with his paws. Luxon luckily escaped with all ten fingers still intact.

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Police dog Scully jumps on Christopher Luxon as the Prime Minister visits the Fijian Police Force canine unit in Suva. Photo / Adam Pearse
Police dog Scully jumps on Christopher Luxon as the Prime Minister visits the Fijian Police Force canine unit in Suva. Photo / Adam Pearse

On the way to the airport, he stopped off at the University of South Pacific to speak to students receiving New Zealand funding before catching a 40-minute flight to Nadi, the last stop on Luxon's Pacific visit.

On Friday morning, Luxon delivered the keynote speech at a joint conference for New Zealand and Fijian business representatives. Just a few hours before kick-off, the rugby talks really began. Luxon briefed the more than 100 spectators on the situation and expressed his hope that the “Defence Blacks” could make up for the Crusaders' demise.

The Herald learned that New Zealand's efforts to win had even gone so far as to discuss with the Fiji team resting some of the home team's more successful players in the hope that this would level the playing field.

Luxon also revealed that he had offered his services to the defence team but was “very politely declined”. New Zealand politicians have experience in this area, as former Foreign Minister Murray McCully was here on a previous visit.

Even if the team had said yes, Luxon said his wife Amanda might have put a stop to it, as Luxon admittedly suffered from strained thigh muscles while exercising during the summer.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon and his wife Amanda speak to university students in Fiji. Photo / Adam Pearse
Prime Minister Christopher Luxon and his wife Amanda speak to university students in Fiji. Photo / Adam Pearse

Luxon was probably glad he hadn't laced up his football boots yet when he entered the stadium. A scorching heat greeted the players as they ran into King Charles Park and even the spectators were sweating.

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Despite the poor starting position, the Defence Blacks gained a clear lead in the early stages of the game and led the Fijians 12-0.

A group of local schoolchildren surprisingly supported the Defence Blacks. Herald It later emerged that Amanda Luxon had taken on a more diplomatic role to advocate for New Zealand, which was apparently quite effective.

Luxon, who was sitting next to Rabuka, immediately drew his Fijian counterpart's attention to New Zealand's success. Rabuka did not seem too concerned.

The Fijian Prime Minister was vindicated shortly afterwards when a defender named Black was temporarily sent off for a botched interception attempt. Fiji used the man advantage very effectively and levelled the game at half-time.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon reminds Fiji's Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka that New Zealand just scored a goal. Photo / Adam Pearse
Prime Minister Christopher Luxon reminds Fiji's Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka that New Zealand just scored a goal. Photo / Adam Pearse

The Prime Minister's delegation then pulled out their wild card and invited Luxon's right-hand man Jake O'Flaherty, who is also a regular match commentator for the Hurricanes, to make a guest appearance with a microphone in hand to commentate on the game for the spectators.

Unfortunately for Luxon, O'Flaherty's soft tones were not enough to combat the Fijians' trademark flair and passing power, which proved too much for the Defence Blacks.

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A last-minute consolation goal for the visitors ensured a respectable score; the Fijians won 24:17 and Luxon's mission was unsuccessful.

Adam Pearse is a political reporter at NZ Herald Press Gallery team, based in Parliament. He has worked for NZME since 2018, covering sport and health for the Lawyer of the North in Whangārei before moving to the Herald in Auckland with coverage of Covid-19 and crime.