By Peter FitzSimons

Simon Raiwalui is a Fijian raised in Australia, who played in the Australian Schoolboys team in the early 1990s with the likes of Ben Tune and Joe Roff. He took over as coach of Fiji in February this year.

Last Saturday his team beat England at Twickenham for the greatest victory in Fijian rugby history. I spoke to him late Tuesday afternoon, just after his team had completed their training at their London base.

Fitz: Simon, warmest congratulations. For many of us in the global rugby community, your blokes beating England last weekend was as like Japan beating the Springboks back in the 2015 World Cup – just fantastic for world rugby and the game itself.

Simon: Thank you. For us to get to play at Twickenham, was a great occasion. We don’t often get to play at the Big Dance. We are all still so happy with it, and Fiji itself is still celebrating.

Fitz: Can you give us some insight on how you accomplished it? We all know Fiji has staggering physical talent and is capable of brilliant ball-work which has translated well in Sevens, but now you appear to have made them a real force in 15-man rugby.

Simon: Right from the start the question was, how do we get to the level of competing, and beating, major international teams? So we identified certain things. We needed to be fitter; we needed better discipline; and we needed to play in true Fijian style. We really started working them harder than ever, to their limits – sometimes four trainings a day. And we emphasised: you can never be penalty-free, but you’ve got to work your butt off to cut out those penalties that you are just giving away for free.

Fitz: We are getting there, coach!

Simon: And one of the big things: to play our true style I wanted to reconnect the team with who we are and who we play for. So when we came together as a squad, we went back to village life. I put them on a bus at three o’clock in the morning in Suva, and after more buses and ferries we got off in this village at nine o’clock that night. We slept in the storm shelter, sorted out a makeshift gym right by the oval, and ate with the villagers. These are the people we playing for. Remember it. Connect with each other, and connect with them.

Fitz: So, I’ve got this straight? From a nation of a million people, spread over 300 islands, you’ve put together a squad that is sleeping on mattresses – and you’ve got the presumption to think you can beat a team from a developed nation of 55 million on one big island, with players so good and professional they are earning over $2 million a year?

Simon: We were working very hard towards that, yes. And while rugby’s always had the haves and the have-nots, the only way the have-nots can close the gap is to work harder. And in those terms I couldn’t have asked for more from them.

Fitz: Is it possible that have-nots are naturally hungrier in rugby than the have-yachts?

Simon: Possibly.

Fitz: OK, so now, how do you develop the style of play you want?

Simon: We still want to keep that natural flair, but in the modern game you have to win your collisions, get over the gain line, have good defences working together and have good set pieces. If we can get all those things working, the flair can come on top of that really solid foundation.

Fitz: So did you have a circle around the date August 26, 2023 – this is the day we play England at Twickenham?

Simon: Obviously this was a huge game for us, but the date we have always had marked was the 10th September which is our first match at the World Cup against Wales. We’ve had a real focus match by match, and I think that’s been one of the big things – not getting too far ahead of ourselves, staying humble.

Fitz: OK, take me to the day of the match. You’re at Twickenham, a long way from the village, with the mattresses. What do you say to them?

Simon: Well, in rugby, a smiling Fijian is a dangerous Fijian. So the first thing I said was: “Enjoy ourselves. Play the way only you can. Enjoy it. Smile. We can win this.”

Fitz: That’s what you said, I’ve no doubt. But did you – a very experienced rugby man, playing and coaching professionally across Australia, New Zealand, Wales, England and France – actually believe it? You must have known that a team with your lack of resources just can’t compete with preening Pommy professionals? Didn’t you?

Simon: I genuinely had 100 per cent faith in the boys. If we could do the things we’ve worked on, right, then we’re going to be “there and about” in every match we play. We’ve just got to do those things correctly. Get our base in place, and go from there. Most importantly, the players believed they could win, that they could beat England at Twickenham, and that’s the most important thing.

Fitz: The game starts, England score early, twice. You’re up against it, down 8-0!

Simon: Yes. They put us under a lot of pressure, but we were able to hold the line, keep our defence up, and come back into the game and score ourselves, with a penalty, to get to 8-3 down at half-time. So that was a really proud moment, just being able to push through, hold on, and I think that was the discipline coming through.

Fitz: But wait, coach, a break in discipline and a yellow card to one of your players – you’re down to 14 men!

Simon: Yes, but even though we got that yellow card, we scored early in the second half. So we took the lead and then once we had that, we managed to build a bit of scoreboard pressure, put the pressure on them.

Fitz: But look now, coach. After going back and forth, you’re leading 23-22 in the dying minutes of the game. Ruck in mid-field in front of the English line. Your reserve halfback Simione Kuruvoli flicks the ball out to another reserve, Vilive Miramira, who double-pumps and throws a long cut-out pass just beyond the grasp of the despairing English hands, into the breadbasket of winger Selestino Ravutaumada!

Simon: Great pass.

Fitz: He cuts infield, jinks, shimmies, shakes, jinks again and bamboozles four England defenders before passing to … to … to Simione Kuruvoli on the fly, who goes over untouched. You’ve won, coach, you’ve won! Fiji’s greatest Test victory, since forever!

Simon: I was obviously very proud. I was just so happy for the boys, for the whole squad, for the coaches, for the victory after all the hard work we’d put in.

Fitz: What was it like in the dressing room?

Simon: You can imagine: tears, cheers, prayers – singing and smiling Fijians. As I said, in rugby, a happy Fijian is a dangerous Fijian and the boys were very, very happy with what they’d achieved – but also just being together, and able to enjoy that moment.

Fitz: And the great thing is, Simon, now you’ve got that big win out of your system, you don’t need to beat Australia in the pool match of the World Cup on September 17, am I right?

Simon: (Laughs.) We are not focused on Australia right now. From the start of the campaign our focus has been on arriving ready for that match against Wales. Sunday 10 September, Bordeaux. It’s going to be a good one. And then we’ll start thinking about Australia …

Fitz: Good luck, against Wales, at least. You are doing the old game proud.