Leicester Tigers have a long-established association with the armed forces. Some historians believe the club might even have borrowed its nickname from the Leicestershire Regiment – also known as the Tigers – in the days when a number of the playing squad also served their country.
And, while the dawn of professionalism may have reduced the number of men splitting their lives between club and military service, back-rower Ifereimi Boladau is the latest in a long line of Tigers to do exactly that.
Signed on loan from Championship side Nottingham at the start of the season, the 33-year-old has pulled on the green, white and red shirt 12 times this campaign.
A Lance Bombardier in the British Army, Boladau marked his Gallagher Premiership debut in November’s win over Gloucester.
“This has been a great opportunity for me to be involved with one of the most successful clubs in the UK,” he says of his time with the Welford Road squad.
“I’ve been so blessed to have been involved as much as I have with Leicester.”
Boladau is the latest in a long line of military men to wear Tigers colours. Australian-born Charles Timms played 25 times for the club before the First World War and was awarded a third bar (one of only four men in the conflict to do so) for ‘conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty’ in tending to the wounded.
Sir Douglas ‘Joe’ Kendrew is the most-decorated Tigers player, serving in both the Second World War and Korean War, becoming a Major-General and later the Governor of Western Australia.
And it’s not just soldiers, either. George Beamish, Alexander Obolensky and Rory Underwood are three of the most famous Tigers to have flown with the Royal Air Force, with the latter the most recent man before Boladau to have played for the club while serving his country.
Research from club historian Stuart Farmer has revealed at least 51 ‘fallen Tigers’ who lost their lives in conflicts around the world. These men will be remembered with a new monument at Welford Road.
Born and raised in Fiji, the back-rower’s first taste of professional rugby came at the Ospreys, before stints at London Scottish and Rotherham Titans.
After a year out of the game to concentrate full-time on his military career, he moved to the East Midlands last summer.
While commentators and supporters alike might be guilty of slipping into matchday clichés – whether it be a ‘battle’ at scrum time or ‘digging in’ for a huge defensive effort – Boladau says there are, actually, some similarities between his two careers.
“One of the things you need to have in the Army is to be mentally strong,” he explains.
“In any job, you need to be mentally strong to push yourself forward, but especially in professional sport.
“Likewise, Army life is quite physical, but if you don’t have that mental strength, you won’t last.
“To have all of that coming into such a big club like Leicester was important, because you play rugby on a weekly basis, train every day, and if you’re not mentally strong, then you could struggle to keep up.”
Playing in such a combative position, Boladau has also seized the chance to feature alongside some of the most physical members of the Tigers squad.
And learning from the likes of Jordan Taufua and Sione Kalamafoni – to name just two – has helped develop the Army man’s game.
“One of my strong assets is ball-carrying,” he continues. “And that’s one part of what I think I have brought to the club. But, at the same time, I have learned a lot from the club as well.
“Growing up in Fiji, the physicality is one of the big things of the game, and that is one of the aspects that I really like about it.
“The physicality, the ball-carrying, the tackling - I love the physical side of rugby.
“When I joined [the Army], I didn’t even know there was a rugby team,” he adds. “But I managed to get into the team, and I was so blessed to get a contract out of that as well.
“I couldn’t believe it when clubs started approaching me and some other boys, and now the women’s side as well are starting to getting contracted out. It’s been great.
“And, at the same time, the Army’s been great at supporting and releasing the players to go and play for professional sides.”
📸— Leicester Tigers (@LeicesterTigers) March 5, 2020
We welcomed our friends from the @armyrugbyunion to Oval Park earlier this week for an opposed session. pic.twitter.com/s5hVsLrYqT
Tigers were able to draw on Boladau’s military links earlier this season, when the Army Rugby squad headed to the club’s Oval Park training base.
He joined up with his Army team-mates for an opposed training session against the Leicester squad, with skipper Captain Jamie Miller pleased to welcome ‘Bola’ back into the fold.
“It’s probably weirder for him than for us,” Miller laughs, when asked about seeing his colleague back in Army kit.
“We’re certainly very pleased to have him on our side, as we always are with Bola.
“I think [the experience] has been great for him. He’s obviously been hugely fortunate to get the opportunities he has had and he took it with two hands, but it’s lovely to have him back in the red shirt.
“We’ve got a long heritage in the Army of having some quality rugby teams.
“Having service players at the top level of domestic rugby is not a new thing by any stretch of the imagination, and only adds more value to our team and the experience that people like Bola bring back is just huge for us.
“That really helps us shape, grow and become a better team.”