Fiji’s first professional rugby team is targeting an ambitious top eight finish in the inaugural season of Super Rugby Pacific this year.

The Drua have had three months together at Lennox Head on the NSW north coast and will play just one trial game, against the Rebels next week, before they open their season against the Waratahs on 18 February

Made up of 70 percent “on-island” Fijians, with a smattering of players plying their trade in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, the majority of the squad have played no rugby since October 2020, when a COVID-19 outbreak shut down Fiji’s provincial competition the Skipper Cup.

But under the watchful eye of strength and conditioning guru Naca Cawanibuka, the squad has dropped a collective 120 kilograms over the summer and is primed to make an impact in the side’s historic entry to professional competition.

“We’ve been fortunate to come into a 12-team competition that has a top eight. I’m not sure there’s many 12-team competitions that have a top eight,” head coach Mick Byrne said.

“We’ve got to grab that opportunity in our first year and we’ve got to go after it. We’re not shying away from the challenge that’s in front of us and we’re not avoiding the reality of it being tough, and we’re not sitting here arrogantly saying we’re going to go after a top eight spot.

“What we’re saying is a top-eight finish is achievable if you put your best foot forward. We’ll go after that eighth position and we’ll go after it really, really hard.”

Byrne, a former All Blacks and Wallabies assistant coach, leads a quality coaching outfit, headlined by Cawanibuka, who worked on the programs of Fiji’s dual Olympic champion sevens team. Former Chiefs five-eighth and Test referee Glen Jackson is backs coach and Australian Brad Harris, who also worked with the Fiji sevens side and has recently coached Georgia, is working with the forwards.

The Drua will be captained by Flying Fijians breakaway Nemani Nagusa, who played in the UK Premiership before returning to Fiji during the pandemic.

The delayed granting of Fiji’s Super Rugby licence crippled the side’s recruitment drive in the lead-up to this season. Byrne said former Wallabies forwards coach and Flying Fijians captain Simon Raiwalui, now the Fiji Rugby Union high-performance boss, had lined up eight Europe-based professionals – a number of tight forwards among them – but was forced to let them go when SANZAAR politics slowed down the announcement of the new competition.

Still, Byrne believes Raiwalui will turn that into a silver lining by investing in raw talent from the islands, as well as a number of sevens gold medallists, including loose forward Meli Derenalagi and utility back Kitione Taliga.

Kitione Salawa jnr, the son of the Fiji international, is a highly rated blindside breakaway, while Joseva Tamani (loose forward), Onisi Ratave (wing) and line-busting centre Kalione Nasoko are also generating buzz.

With little game time to bed down the continuity, after travel restrictions saw their trial cancelled against the Force, Byrne said there was a long road ahead.

“Our big focus for the Rebels trial is can we put in place some of the things we’ve been working on as a team when the heat of battle goes and there’s an opposition jersey there and you haven’t seen an opposition jersey since October 2020? Are you going to be able to stay doing what we want to do or are you just going to get focused on the opposition jersey?” he said.