The interim chief executive of the Fijian Drua, one of two Super Rugby Pacific new entrants for 2022, says the depth on the islands is such that a place in the eight-team finals is possible next year – an outcome that could knock an Australian side out of the playoffs.
“I think it’s really hard to predict, and you don’t want to set yourself up by putting a goal out there that can’t be reached,” Brian Thorburn told Stuff.
“And you can’t expect a new franchise that’s been put together in such a short period of time to be instantly successful.
“So, I don’t for a moment suggest that we’ll be competing for the final, but I would like to think that we would target being in the finals, in the top eight. That’s a goal which we should aspire to.”
Thorburn’s remarks capture the mixture of excitement and realism that must be applied to the Drua.
They announced their first five signings on Monday – including Bay of Plenty excitement machine Onisi Ratave, Sevens wizard Napolioni Bolaca and Fiji test halfback Simione Kuruvoli – and a further batch of players will be unveiled early next week.
The head coaching role will be announced on Thursday – current Fijian Rugby general manager of high performance Simon Raiwalui has excellent credentials – and Thorburn said that only a sleeve sponsor and shorts sponsor remained outstanding from a commercial point of view.
Momentum is clearly building for the Drua, although it hasn’t been all smooth sailing.
New Zealand Rugby offered the Drua a conditional licence in April, but the unconditional licence wasn’t confirmed until September after months of wrangling between NZ Rugby and Rugby Australia about the format of Super Rugby Pacific.
“There was certainly some moments when we were uncertain if it was going ahead, absolutely,” Thorburn said. “And there were some times when we look at different models, if we join one side of the Tasman versus the other if the parties couldn’t agree.”
That uncertainty reduced the amount of time the Drua and Moana Pasifika had to assemble squads, but Thorburn said the focus was now firmly on the future and purred over depth in Fiji, and the transformational impact the Drua would have on the Fijian test side.
“I’ve seen the depth chart that goes from one to six in every position [for the Drua], and it’s pretty strong,” Thorburn said. “The production line of players in Fiji is just huge.
“We’re a one-team, once country model, which is unique. It’s one of the reason I think that, taking a five to 10 year view, the flow-on effects for the Flying Fijians will be huge.
“But we’re also a country where we’ve got a very strong provincial structure. The Skipper Cup is the top eight provincial terms, and the Vanua [Championship] is the next 16, so there are 24 provinces, each fielding a senior team and 21s and 19s.”
Those enviable playing resources mean the Drua have a different recruitment policy to Moana Pasifika, who have indicated that several former All Blacks or Wallabies could be included in their inaugural squad.
“That is just not our strategy,” Thorburn said. “If we’ve got a particular weakness because we don’t have as much depth or we’ve got some injury concerns, or we haven’t been out we get somebody from Europe back that we really wanted…
“At the moment we’re only considering one person in that kind of category for next year.
“The vast majority of our squad we’ve absolutely got targeted and engaged and ready to roll.”
The Drua will always run into competition for their players. Eyebrows were raised in Australia on Monday when the North Queensland Cowboys signed Fijian Sevens Olympic gold medallist Iosefo Masikau and fellow Sevens star Taniela Sadrugu, both of whom had trained at the NRL club’s facilities during the Oceania Sevens in June. Both players were likely to win Drua contracts.
However, the new boys still appear to be capable of compiling a competitive unit for their first Super Rugby Pacific campaign, when they will be based in Australia due to Covid-19.
“I certainly hope the introduction the Drua and Moana will bring some real energy and excitement, and our style of play will light up the competition,” Thorburn said.
“The other thing is going back to July, I think many people, particularly in New Zealand, saw how the Flying Fijians went in that first test in particular.
“Remember they had come out of quarantine and had a single training session for that test, and they really pushed them [the All Blacks],” he said.