Former national rugby star Francis Smith’s heart is set on giving back to people

Saturday 5 December 2020 | Written by Losirene Lacanivalu | Published in Features, Weekend


Former national rugby star Francis Smith’s heart is set on giving back to people
Francis Smith working in his garden in Mitiaro. Photo: LOSIRENE LACANIVALU. 20120407

Francis Smith first visited Mitiaro when he was six or seven years old. That was the first time he saw an itiki – the island’s famous fresh water eel. Almost three decades on, he reconnects with the itiki and calls the southern group island his new home.

About nine months ago, former Cook Islands rugby star Francis Smith, his wife Katreena and their children returned to Mitiaro for a holiday.

Little did he know the short visit would lead to a permanent move to the southern group island.

And so far, it’s the best step they have taken.

With his wife Katreena, who is from Mitiaro, they are enjoying the island life of farming and fishing while at the same learning the legends and history of the land.

Smith, 35, spent over 10 years in New Zealand playing professional rugby.

He then went on to France and travelled around before returning to Rarotonga to settle.

The Smith family stayed in Rarotonga for about three years until Covid hit.

“We left because of Covid, thought we would come see family here on the island, learn a bit of history and ended up loving it here so much that we don’t want to go back.”

With his eldest daughter studying in Rarotonga, Smith together with his wife and three younger children spend their time in Mitiaro making use of the natural surroundings that Mother Nature has for them.

So, what does a typical day look like for Smith?

“A typical day for me is waking up - going to the plantation, watering the garden, getting the kids ready and taking them to school,” he says.

Surrounded by bananas, tomatoes, pawpaw plants, Smith and his wife have also started planting some herbs in their backyard.

“I enjoy my time in the farm, I am being patient and have learnt that whatever I plant we can eat and also help others who need food.”

Recently, Smith’s seven-year old daughter, Hayley took an idea to her parents - to sell crops, vegetables, nu and her mum’s special tasty cheese bread.

Francis Smith’s daughter Hayley Smith is the inspiration behind the new Saturday market. Pictured: Hayley spends the afternoon going through some basic training with her dad. Photo: LOSIRENE LACANIVALU. 20120408

Smith says the idea was more for his children to earn some cash, as they wanted to purchase their own fishing rods ($60 each) from the island’s fishing club - which they successfully did.

Smith, who recently started working for the Ministry of Agriculture says the people of Mitiaro plant miniota, taro, kumara and they are now trying to get them to gain more knowledge on how to sell produce at the local market.

Most of their farming knowledge comes from their elders/planters which is valuable, Smith says, and on the island, everyone is willing to help each other - especially if you are just starting.

“In the future, we will be trying to motivate our young ones to start farming. Rarotonga has less land to plant, so we want our young ones to plant and produce more to help feed our people, and tourists coming from New Zealand and other countries - that is the big picture.

“We just started the job and this is the plan for the next couple of years.”

An avid sportsman, Smith was part of the Cook Islands Games team where he helped with training some of the participants.

Now, he focuses on training kids at the Mitiaro Golf Club some basic golf techniques.

Leading the Mitiaro Sports Committee, he spends time working on the development of the island’s first ever bowling club, before heading back to the plantation in the afternoons.

“A bowling club in Mitiaro maybe the first ever in the Pa Enua I think and hopefully no one copies,” he says with a laugh.

“You never know with golf, some of these kids just might be the future Tiger Woods, rugby player or bowler.”

Smith says Mitiaro is a relaxing place to be.

“It is always a bit hard when people go overseas but hey, this is home, it is a special place. Home is where the heart is,” he says.

“We have an obligation as a person to give back to our home and look after it, that is the big thing for me, to give something back to our people.

“I encourage our kids to go overseas to learn, and for me it was a good idea to go overseas because I learnt to be more grateful, to be respectful and learnt about different cultures.”