Once A Warrior | Junior Bulumakau
At the heart of the Caledonia Reds celebrations as they lifted the Inter-District Championship trophy, a face familiar to the Warrior Nation stood grinning from ear-to-ear.
“I absolutely loved my time at Glasgow,” Junior Bulumakau said, a month on from the men in red’s trophy lift.
“I always felt like part of the family and it’s one of the highlights of my rugby career.”
It’s safe to say that Bulumakau’s journey since moving on from Scotstoun in the summer of 2017 has been something of a rollercoaster, with injury, surgery and the not-so-small matter of a pandemic eventually calling an end to his playing career.
Yet since returning to Scotland, a new chapter in the Scotland 7s international’s rugby story has taken centre stage – and it’s one that the Fijian-born flyer is loving the chance to write.
“I went to Doncaster after I finished up at Scotstoun – my brother was down there, so the opportunity to play with him was one that I couldn’t pass up,” explained Bulumakau.
“I was there for a year, then we both moved to Coventry and played a couple of seasons there before COVID came along and shut everything down.
“I’d got injured and had surgery just before COVID, so it was a tough time at that point – I couldn’t do any rehab or anything, but it did give me a lot of time to spend with my kids, and I started teaching them about rugby and giving them really basic coaching on how to pass and so on.
“We moved back up to Scotland and up to Inverness around the same time, and Highland RFC got in touch to see if I’d be up for coming along for some touch rugby, both to help my rehab and also from a mental side of things – I was missing the camaraderie really! I can’t thank them enough really, because they welcomed me with open arms from day one.
“Out of the blue one day, they asked if I’d be interested in coaching because they were looking for a backs coach. I said sure, I’ll give it a go, and it’s been something that I’ve absolutely loved.
“Seeing the potential in players, how well they develop and how they do on the pitch, all of that is so satisfying for me and I love it. I’m three years into my coaching career now and it’s one of the best moves I’ve ever made.”
To say that Bulumakau is enjoying his time with the Canal Park-based outfit would be under-selling the enthusiasm with which the former Glasgow winger discusses his new role, his passion for the sport evident throughout the conversation.
The 32-year-old is quick to thank his day job, too, having joined the Army when he was just 18.
“I’m still a serving soldier with 3 Scots, even though some of my friends say I’m just coaching 24/7 now!” laughed Bulumakau.
“I’ve been in the Army for 14 years now, and they’ve been so supportive of me and my rugby career. They’ve given me the freedom to go and play and coach, as well as giving me the support I need throughout my rehab from injury, looking after my family and I and helping us get settled up in Inverness.
“It was great to see the Warriors up in Inverness last summer, too. [Team Manager] John Manson had given me a shout and said to come along and catch up with the boys, so to see guys like Zander [Fagerson], Ryan [Wilson], and Lewis Bean who I knew from the Army, that was brilliant. Glasgow’s such a special place to me and I’ll always say thank you to everyone at the club for everything they did for me.”
Yet despite a natural transition into the world of coaching, the call to join the Caledonian Reds coaching team for the 2023 Inter-District Championship still came as a shock to Bulumakau.
“To be honest, I’d never even imagined being in that role!,” he admitted.
“Kevin Wyness, who coaches the forwards at Highland, asked if I’d be interested in coaching the backs for the Reds and that left me speechless really. I’d never even considered it as an option, but I told him I’d love the opportunity.
“I had an interview three days before Christmas last year and was lucky to get it, and we were looking at players from about mid-January onwards. That was a fairly big task to be honest, because we were looking at players from clubs all over the place, so there was a lot of driving around Scotland involved!
“The boys were brilliant, though. We had a couple of training sessions and then a warm-up game against the Army, which really got us ready for the competition, and it just all went from there really.”
A campaign capped with silverware wasn’t the aspect of the experience that pleased Bulumakau the most, however.
Instead, it was the creation of a team that will live longest in the memory.
“It was tricky for us as coaches, because at the end of the day the 40 players we’d selected were playing against each other week in, week out,” he explained.
“Our first session was largely focused on letting the guys get to know each other and find out about their team-mates, and then second session we went straight into full contact. The guys knew they had a small window to gel and become a team and they smashed it.
“That was one of the most pleasing things for me – every single week the boys were working hard and improving, ready to do whatever their team-mates needed them to do.”
With the championship set to return in 2024 and the Reds hoping to defend their title, there’s every chance that the former Warrior could once again be on the sidelines as his team chase glory.
Not that Bulumakau is looking that far ahead, though. Far from it. There’s far too much work to be done between now and then – and he’s looking forward to every second of it.
“Right now, I’m still coaching with the Army – we actually just finished our Inter-Services campaign by beating the RAF at Oriam, so the Army won the cup in Scotland!” he smiled.
“There’s also sevens season coming up, so I’ll be coaching serving soldiers from all over the UK and getting involved there. Then we’re into pre-season with Highland in July – it’s non-stop!
“It’s what my dad always said, though – if you do something you enjoy, keep doing it. If you don’t, then find something that keeps you happy.”