WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The Fiji rugby team chose not to wear jerseys bearing a pro-vaccination message during Saturday’s test against New Zealand because of objections from some players.
Fiji’s major sponsor, Fijian Airlines, agreed to allow its prime advertising position on the front of the jerseys to be replaced with the message “Vaccinate Fiji.”
Fiji has been in the grip of a major COVID-19 outbreak since April with 500 cases reported in the 24 hours to Saturday morning. There have been almost 50 deaths to date.
The outbreak has prompted an urgent vaccination campaign in the Pacific Island nation of just over 900,000 people. Fiji Health Secretary Dr. James Fong said as of Friday almost 350,000 Fijians had received one vaccination jab and 65,000 were fully vaccinated.
But health authorities have encountered significant vaccination hesitation and some churches have spread anti-vaccination information.
The Fiji rugby players are heroes in their homeland and there was hope their promotion of the vaccination rollout might help cut through opposition.
Coach Vern Cotter was quoted before Saturday’s match as saying “our Fijian rugby players are famed at home and the world over. They inspire Fijians of all ages and are honored to carry forward a message that will help our people and our country emerge from the COVID crisis.”
But when the team took the field in Dunedin on Saturday night, it was in clean jerseys with no messaging. Asked after the match why the Vaccinate Fiji message was absent, Cotter said the reasons were “complex.” But he suggested some players had not been comfortable promoting vaccination.
Cotter said “we really haven’t got the full answer” to why the vaccination message was not worn.
“It was sprung on the players quite late in the piece and there wasn’t a lot of exchange and consultation,” he said. “As you can imagine, it’s a delicate subject for some so it was probably better to just have a clean jersey at this stage and spend some time on how we best want to communicate on this matter and how comfortable the players are in communicating it.”
Cotter said the Fiji players will discuss the issue again before the second test against the All Blacks next weekend.
“But like I said it’s complex and we need to work it out because it’s not just sport we’re talking about now,” Cotter said. “So we’ll just take time to communicate better in future.”
More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports