Fiji’s shock win over France was a triumph not only for Fiji but, for rugby as a whole.
The Flying Fijians earned a first-ever victory over France at the Stade de France on Saturday night. Tries from Semi Radradra and Josua Tuisova secured Fiji Rugby a historic 14-21 victory. Won, despite French captain Guilhem Guirado going over for two scores of his own, France fell to yet another defeat.
Grab a coffee and escape the Mondayitis….. https://t.co/qm5RMbnR4z
— Fiji Rugby Union (@fijirugby) November 25, 2018
It was not so much the win (France are in a bit of a mess under Jacques Brunel) but the manner of the victory for Fiji. They were forced front up physically and grind out the result, making a mammoth 158 tackles throughout the course of the game.
Fiiji’s scrum, so often a point of weakness for packs lacking in cohesion, won all 13 opportunities on their feed. What’s more, Fiji did all this without two of their key players – Levani Botia and Nemani Nadolo – both absent through injury. A win for Fiji Rugby without these two absolute superstars should be celebrated as a delight for Pacifica fans, as much as another shock for Les Bleus.
This game showed that with time together, smart coaching and team spirit, sides like Fiji can compete against Tier One nations more regularly. In victory they leapfrog both their opponents and Argentina up to a high of eighth place, in the World Rugby rankings – testament to their growth as a team and ability.
— Arshad Daud (@Arshad_Daud) November 24, 2018
Great win but, the problem with Fiji Rugby is…
As Olympic Games Rugby Sevens winning former head coach Ben Ryan pointed out on Twitter – who knows Fiji rugby rather well – there is an issue.
It is that ‘the next time this group of players reassemble will be more than sixth months from now’. A ridiculously long period of inactivity, that no Tier One nation would survive.
Unlike his colleagues with the bigger nations in World Rugby, Fiji rugby head coach John McKee will not get an opportunity to reconvene his players anytime soon after this famous victory. Instead, most will go back to completely different environments; to environments lacking in the kinship instrumental in this win, back to French Top14 and other competitions.
And sadly Fiji Rugby will diminish much of their gained momentum, through an inability to hold their team close together [no central contracts, like Irish or New Zealand Rugby].
Take Josua Tuisova, for example: he will return to Toulon, a club in chaos and crisis, where he may be shunted around the backline as head coach Patrice Collazo seeks to dig himself out of a considerable hole.
This lack of time together is hugely detrimental. The side had just three days of training together prior to their first match of the November Internationals calendar. In their loss to Scotland, it showed in their messy performance on the pitch – unprecise and playing on natural skills alone.
Yet the win in Paris shows what can happen when the players get time to gel.
Imagine if Fiji Rugby could have brought players together earlier. If the World Rugby window allowed players a week to prepare for International matches….might they have added a Scottish scalp to their accolades?
The huge role of the Fijian Drua NRC result
The introduction of the Fijian Drua to Australia’s National Rugby Championship (NRC) has been an undoubted success.
Finishing third in their debut season last year, the Drua went all the way in 2018. A 36-26 success against Queensland in the final in Lautoka which marked a significant step in the right direction, for Fiji rugby.
The Fijian Drua have done it!!
— Ultimate Rugby (@ultimaterugby) October 27, 2018
This is not a team full of galacticos, but one full of promise and the joyful rugby so characteristically Fijian. New names are emerging and Fiji are building depth. No longer players are having to fly thousands of miles from home to try to break through in Europe.
Exciting half-back pairing Frank Lomani and Alivereti Veitokani may yet emerge as the first-choice duo for the World Cup. The former started at nine against France.
The financial pressures; covered in such startling depth and colour by Ryan in his wonderful autobiography Sevens Heaven, remain. But, if the Fijian Drua can continue to evolve and have success, calls for a Pacifica Super Rugby team will only intensify.
Such a side would only aid rugby as a whole across Oceania Rugby, and Fiji Rugby particularly. Creating more hardened rugby professionals is a key next step for the country as they look to build.
Pacifica Rugby – a Staggering talent pool
In the incomparable Semi Radradra, Fiji might stake claim to the best outside centre in the world. Given the ex-League superstar has been playing his new code for little more than a year – and at outside centre for less than that – his impact is remarkable.
Everyone knows his ability as a ball-carrier, his pace, strength, agility and balance. But lost in the effusive praise can be his little touches. His decision-making both in attack and defence, that is born from being a fulltime professional sportsman.
With Vereniki Goneva, Tuisova and Nadolo among a slew of outside backs from which to choose from, Fiji rugby does not hurt for options outside of Radradra. Jale Vatubua is an underrated 12, too. His hard-running lines help open space for Radradra and supporting players athleticism wider. Time in the Top14 has benefitted him, as well as others who are forced to head to the Northern hemisphere, to ply their trade.
— La Rép des Pyrénées (@LaRepDpyrenees) January 2, 2017
Indeed, France will soon be able to call on their own Fijian outside back, with Alivereti Raka’s qualification all but complete.
But beyond the outside backs (where Fiji have always produced stars) some of the best in Europe also don the white jersey. Leone Nakarawa’s talents are well-documented, his offloading game peerless. Peceli Yato has been the most effective and complete back-rower in France this season.
Viliame ‘Big Bill’ Mata has emerged as one of the biggest threats in the Guinness PRO14 at Edinburgh. Combining his carrying power with Yato and Botia in an all-action back row is mouthwatering. If they can bring 15 players together, all as talented as the best teams in World Rugby, then the future [could] be bright for the men from the South Seas Islands.
Fiji Rugby’s victory over France a triumph on which they must build on
One factor is true. It is crucial that head coach John McKee continues to build his squad and look at those coming through the grades. This includes the Fijian Drua, Super Rugby and on Fiji.
Former Crusaders/Harbour Rugby player Ben Volavola is a much-maligned figure at fly-half yet, under pressure from Veitokani, he seems to have kicked on. That explains how internal motivation, competing for places, is how the team can improve – not just from bringing back players who perform in Europe.
McKee needs to spend as much time with the squad as possible and keep up the teams’ cohesion.
Supplanting the superstars with solidity and leadership will be key element in Japan next year. Fiji are drawn alongside Wales, Australia, Georgia and Uruguay in Pool D, for the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
The Georgia game is one McKee will really be targeting as a must-win. And based on this weekend’s November International performances, the opening fixture against Michael Cheika’s side looks to be an intriguing encounter.
Beating France in the Autumn is one thing, but a win over Australia at a World Cup would be another. And don’t count Fiji out; playing with togetherness, awesome natural ability and in the spirit of the game, they have the quality to beat almost anyone.
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