Around this time of year and at Rugby World Cup time, I’ll get some emails or calls from journalists all pretty much saying the same thing: “So Fiji, they always get a short straw etc, etc. Players in other teams, no training time, no money, no resources.” It’s always the same.
There was a time not very long ago that those statements held true. Pacific teams were on the back foot all the time. Tonga and Samoa are still in need of serious help but for Fiji, who play Wales on Sunday, life is very different now.
Yes, they aren’t an England or New Zealand, who can negotiate with the clubs to get large training blocks – they get the window that World Rugby sanctions. This does have its merits – sometimes a short runway into the November games is no bad thing. Keeps it simple, focuses the mind. Players will come in fit as they have been playing regularly and it is a question of putting a simple framework in place and creating some connections and alignment. A few years ago, players would often come into the national team having not played much for their club team or playing out of position. That lack of game time and not having trained or played that much together was not a good combination.
Now, the team is full of players central to their clubs and used to winning. Winning club tournaments, Olympic golds, Test matches.
The coaching staff, headed by Vern Cotter, are largely not there as Covid entry regulations back to New Zealand following the tour could have left them stranded for a long time. So Gareth Baber, recent sevens head coach and Tokyo Olympic gold-medal winning coach, heads up pitchside operations. He will, I’m sure, be constantly in conversation with Vern and the strategy and selection will come from Cotter, albeit virtually. I’m not sure anyone will use that as an excuse either. Pacific Islanders are used to being adaptive and it will test out their togetherness as a group which I think is always a strength of the island nations’ teams.
Massive changes have also been bubbling away in the background. The Fijian Drua will play in Super Rugby. It’s a game-changer – the first fully professional team on the islands. The pipeline of talent, for once, will be coming from players developed in Fiji with academies and full-time staff being developed and nurtured too. Of course there will be some teething problems.
The salaries will not match those in Europe so those agents that were picking up Fijian talent after dredging Facebook videos and local tournament footage will only have to watch the Drua play to spot a talent that will still, in the first few years, be tempted overseas. But there are so many positives to counter anything negative and Fijian rugby has never been in a better place to move up the rankings and begin to regularly take the scalps of the top teams.
Some like Viliame Mata, Leone Nakarawa, Josua Tuisova and Waisea Nayacalevu are well-established, world-class players. There is also a new group including out and out gas man, Aminiasi Tuimaba, now playing for Pau; Mesulame Kunavula, a rampaging, power forward and back-rower at Edinburgh; Castres midfielder Vilimoni Botitu, and Apisai Naqalevu, who, although the other side of 30 now, is creating carnage for Clermont – his weight has been used to full effect. Add a couple more gold medallists, Jiuta Wainiqolo and Masivesi Dakuwaqa, and you have seven players in the squad that have stood atop of the podium at an Olympics.
A change in eligibility rules could also benefit the island nations if it gets voted in soon. Currently, if you have played Test rugby or international senior sevens in a recognised tournament, you are locked in. There is one small loophole via Olympic sevens but it is not an easy one to manage so only a handful have gone that route.
The new rule, if passed, would mean if you have not played for one of those teams for three years then you can play for another country you are eligible for. There are quite a few players that played a few sevens tournaments or the odd Test match that might be able to feature for their country of heritage soon. My gut is there are more of those from Tongan and Samoan heritage that will come forward but, again, it is another move in the right direction to help these countries.
More than a dozen former sevens players will be on show in Cardiff. I hope it lends strength to the argument that in the vast majority of cases, a rugby player is a rugby player and they can convert successfully. On the Pacific islands, including New Zealand, it’s very common for a sevens player to bounce between XVs and sevens. It’s only Europe (and actually really only the UK) that sees a perceived division and gives ridiculous claims around huge amounts of time needed to condition a player.
Wales’s excellent head coach, Wayne Pivac, knows Fiji well. He has been a coach to the Fijian sevens and 15s teams and will be acutely aware of the threat they pose. Collectively the group feels it is on a journey that will pave the way for future Pacific talent to benefit from. Previous generations have had to suffer from all sorts of undervaluing provision and help and they are also at the forefront of this new team.
For decades, island rugby has been paid lip service by all around them. Their sacrifice finally looks like it will not be in vain. The light burns brightly for Fiji at the end of this tunnel and I hope, in turn, this will lead to similar efforts to help Tongan and Samoan rugby. But for now, expect consistent, professional performances from Fiji although I hope that with all the extra resources they are now getting, they will still retain the flair and excitement that befits their nickname – the Flying Fijians. Watch out world.
• Ben Ryan coached Fiji to Olympic sevens gold in 2016