The challenge facing Warren Gatland’s Wales and the Wallabies under Eddie Jones at the Rugby World Cup has suddenly become even more daunting thanks to the significant strides made by the Fijian Drua in the Super Rugby Pacific championship and the heart of the improvement is Welshman Mark Evans, who admits he is getting increasingly nervous about his nation’s chances in the build up to France 2023.

Evans took up the challenge of helping the Drua find stability as chief executive by ensuring the franchise could be truly competitive under head coach Mick Byrne and they have made history by earning a quarter-final match against the mighty Crusaders in Christchurch on Saturday. Evans, who formerly held key roles with Premiership giants Saracens and Harlequins, expects the Drua to provide a large contingent in head coach Simon Raiwalui’s Flying Fijians at the World Cup, giving the squad a continuity that has never been present before.

With five warm up matches and a host of European based Fijian players excelling this season, the warning lights are flashing for both Wales and Australia who have huge question marks over their ability to emerge from Pool C which also includes the dangerous Georgia and minnows Portugal.

Evans told RugbyPass from his home in Fiji: “Part of the project here was to improve the national team and while I have divided loyalties when it comes to the Rugby World Cup, the Drua will have an impact on how the Flying Fijians go in France. Just look at the back five Fiji could put out in France; Sireli Maqala (Bayonne), Semi Radradra (Lyon), Jiuta Wainiqolo (Toulon), Waisea Nayacalevu (Toulon) and Josua Tuisova (Lyon) and that is with shifting Levani Botia to No7. It is a serious team and Simon Raiwalui is a really good coach and selector with a great team of coaches.

“Of course Australia and Wales are the big teams in the pool but I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if Fiji qualify for the knock out stages. Certainly, they have a chance and what has been missed by many people is that the Flying Fijians have five warm up games; Tonga, Samoa, Japan, England and France. Fiji do well at World Cups because it is only time the players get time to prepare and this time you have the cohesion of the Drua players plus those games to integrate everyone before you even get to the tournament.

“They are going to be a good team and Drua will probably have 13 or 15 of the 33 man squad and that is a big change for Fiji to have nearly half the squad playing regularly together – just as like the Super Rugby Jaguares side helped Argentina.

“Peter Horne and World Rugby deserve lots of praise for putting years of work into this and refused to give up despite challenges like poverty and governance issues. They get a lot of stick but should be credited for the work with Georgia and Fiji and by the 2027 World Cup it is will be really, really interesting.”

Evans insists the Drua will not be daunted by the challenge of taking on the Crusaders who are going for a fifth successive title and while his team has done well at home, they are yet to translate that into regular away wins this season. “Our target in year two was to qualify for the finals which I thought was a stretch but felt it was realistic if we had a good year and we have come on and had a decent one – it’s not over yet,” he added.

“The most important metric is team performance and we have won six so far – five at home – and we are playing better because we have had a year together. Only three of the team had played professional rugby before last season and so you would expect an improvement in the second year because of better cohesion, a home base on the islands, living at home, stable coaching team and S&C, better discipline and off field behaviour with an improvement in the penalty count.

“We are a strong scrummaging team with all of our props fit and the lineout has improved but could be even better while our ball retention in contact is better and credit for this goes to Mick (Byrne) and the coaches. We are starting to see the results of that work and while we still have weaknesses, we are fitter and that could also be better.

“Ball in play time against the Waratahs was 46 minutes and that is high and while we lost, it was a great game and we will be fitter next season. We operate with 37 players with ten development and we have one slot left for 2024 and six coming up into the senior squad.

“We are now getting enquiries from Fijians overseas and there are over 200 Fijians playing abroad. We will lose Kalaveti Ravouvou going to Bristol and Joe Tamani heads to Colomiers because they announced moves before the season and I wonder if they would be going now. Previously, if you wanted to play professional 15-a-side you had to leave because there was no team.

“Most players between 16 and 19 years of age go to Australia, New Zealand, France or Japan. In France they become French qualified under their JIFF (Joueurs Issus des Filières de Formation) rules and they can become naturalised in New Zealand and Australia. Can we stop that entirely? Probably not, but can we reduce it? – yes. A lot of French scouts come for the schools competition which is huge and there are number of Fijian youngsters about to get into Top 14 squads from the espoirs.

“Those players went to France when there was nothing to stay for in Fiji and that will be reduced because there is an alternative route.”

Crucially, off the pitch, Evans is signing deals with domestic sponsors for the Drua with the television impact particularly impressive. He explained: “Financially, you can definitely run a team here because there is a big enough commercial sector in Fiji and the penetration of rugby is so enormous you become an option for consumer facing brands. Crowds are decent and the television figures are amazing – huge. We estimate that half the population are watching the games live on any given weekend and in a UK context that would mean 32 million are watching you on TV!

“It is quite hard to get your head around that and this is the first year we have been able to estimate that 400-500,000 are watching live in Fiji where a third of the country is under 18. Going to the Crusaders is a wonderful opportunity and while there is no pressure on us, Fijian fans now think we are going to win the tournament.”

How does the former Harlequins CEO view the impending loss of London Irish from the Premiership and the ongoing financial problems in the English Premiership. “The model is broken and I have been banging on about this for some time: “ he added. “I blame the clubs as much at the RFU and we could have fixed it and that is on all of us.”