Fiji Sevens rugby fans have initiated an appeal to help an injured rugby player who needs at least NZ$30,000 (US$18,535) to get urgent knee surgery, while also raising concerns about the age-old problem of player welfare in the country.

Napolioni Bolaca, an Olympic gold medallist at the 2020 Tokyo Games, has been out of rugby action in the last 12 months after he tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) on his right knee.

The nippy utility back was announced as the first player contracted for the Fijian Drua last year but was not able to play for the season.

Drua chief executive Brian Thorburn at the time stated that the decision to release him from the team was “taken in the best interest of all parties, and at the request of [Fiji Sevens] coach Ben Gollings.”

“It allows Bolaca to return to enjoying rugby in a familiar environment, and where he has had massive success,” he announced in May last year.

The player was later picked for sevens team duties late last year but was not up to it because of his injury.

Now a GoFundMe appeal has been initiated by rugby fans Maleli Nauluvula and Salote Bokini to help him get treatment in New Zealand and others are calling out Fiji Rugby Union (FRU) and the Fijian Drua on player welfare.

FRU executive chairman Humphrey Tawake has told The Fiji Times: “We are trying to help out with whatever means we can.”

RNZ Pacific has contacted the FRU and Fijian Drua for comment.

Former FRU acting chief executive officer Tevita Tuiloma, whose term ended last week, has thrown his weight behind the campaign.

Tuiloa said an urgent surgery would not only help Bolaca get back on the rugby field but also fight for a place in the sevens team for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.

Bolaca was famous for his witty remark: “When you tired, don’t tired!”, which he said during an interview after the 2020 Olympic Games 7s rugby gold medal win.

“Everyone know that famous quip and everyone knows the lovable and cheeky personality who said it even better,” Tuiloa said.

“Napolioni Bolaca or ‘Naps’ as he is known to rugby stalwarts and fans the world over is a 26-year-old young man from Viwa in Fiji’s beautiful Yasawa Group and he has been a dedicated servant of Fiji in the game of rugby sevens,” Tuiloa said in a Facebook post on Monday.

“One month ago Naps also got the added title of ‘Tamai Sake’ (father of Sake) when he and his beautiful wife Laisana Likuceva, a bronze medal winner with the Fijiana Sevens team at Tokyo 2020, welcomed their beautiful son Mesake Bolaca into the world.

On Wednesday midday local time, over US$7,000 had been raised.

Tuiloa said surgery in New Zealand could fix his injury and Bolaca can go back to playing the sport he loves and supporting his young family.

“He can also, after a six-month recovery period, put his hand up for selection for Paris 2024, which he really really wants,” he said.

“The bad news is that Naps needs around NZ$30,000 to fund his surgery and incidentals and he just doesn’t have that kind of money.”

Tuiloa said he was making an appeal on behalf of Bolaca, an “Olympic gold medal winner, humble servant of Fijian rugby, heart, soul and personality of any team that he is part of, husband of Laisana and Tamai Mesake”.

He said Bolaca was also thinking of life after rugby and he wanted to be the best version of himself so he can be a good husband to his wife and father to his children.

“Please consider giving whatever amount you can to help Naps out.”

“Naps, along with his family, friends and supporters cannot thank you enough for your generosity and willingness to remember his own contribution to Fiji,” he added.

Fiji sevens coach Gollings has stated that Bolaca was still on his radar but needed to recover from the injury.