Portugal, who beat them, might think otherwise, but the story of the pool stages of this World Cup has been the arrival of Fiji as a contender among the big nations.
Rugby still unashamedly distinguishes between its tier-one nations and tier two. Fiji, as they were in 2007, are this edition’s tier-two interlopers among the quarter-final elite, when they eyeball England in Sunday’s afternoon match in Marseille.
This time they mean to stay. The success of the national side and the establishment of a first professional team on the islands, in the shape of Fijian Drua, is not a coincidence. Fiji is the most populous of the Pacific island nations and by far the most talented at rugby, those hardy peoples scattered throughout the vastest ocean on earth. Everyone on planet rugby has long known that the only barriers between the Pacific islands and meaningful success have been resources, organisation and regular fixtures. As simple and as complicated as that.
The creation of Drua and Moana Pasifika, the equivalent professional team covering Samoa and Tonga, is a first significant step to affording the three Pacific nations at least a chance against their less-talented but better-resourced rivals – in other words, the rest of the rugby world. This year, both teams completed their second season in Super Rugby, mixing it with Crusaders, Brumbies et al.
Such is the talent that all three of the Pacific islands’ leading rugby nations have enjoyed famous one-off victories in World Cups, but now the hope is their underpinning with representative teams below international level will yield something more consistent and sustainable. In their second season in Super Rugby Drua won five of their seven home games to make the playoffs, recording notable victories over the Crusaders and the Hurricanes among others. They thumped the Reds.
These Atlantic islands may not boast the playing talent of those of the Pacific, but they turn out their fair share of administrators. One of the best of them, Mark Evans, has been chief executive of Fijian Drua for the past year. He has long insisted that the full effect will not work through until the 2027 World Cup.
“I stand by that,” he says from under a lazy ceiling fan in Nadi, clad in Fijian Drua garb. “The age profile of the current [Fiji] squad is quite interesting. Not dissimilar to England, there’s about six or seven of them, most of the Europe-based players, who won’t make it to the next World Cup. But the rest are young.”
There is a reset to international rugby due in 2026 with the mooted Nations Cup. It is barely a secret any more that Fiji and Japan will be elevated to tier-one status to complete the 12. “With a bit of luck, Fiji will be in the Rugby Championship by 2026, so will have played a lot more rugby against tier-one teams by 2027. Through the Drua, young Fijian talent will have played a lot more Super Rugby.”
Evans, brought up in Wales, has been completely seduced by Fiji’s passion for the sport. He attended the narrow, controversial defeat by Wales in Bordeaux, fully decked out in Drua regalia, unapologetically supporting them over the land of his fathers. Half the population of Fiji, he proudly relates, about half a million, tune in for the Drua’s home games.
Having returned to the islands, he can disclose that there are images of Flying Fijians on virtually every street corner and every commodity in the land. The main problem for what will be rather more than half of the population is whether to stay up for the 3am kick-off or wake up early.
Evans will be in Sydney with Sitiveni Rabuka, Fiji’s prime minister. They are due to announce on Monday another four years’ funding for Drua rugby from the Australian government. New Zealand Rugby and World Rugby are also funders, as well as a string of Pacific companies seeking the attention of those half a million eyeballs.
Which leaves the small matter of Sunday. Having more than matched Wales and beaten Australia, Fiji struggled against Georgia and lost to Portugal, hinting at familiar problems with underdog and favourite status. The Portugal loss may even help against England, underscoring that underdog status so soon after Fiji beat them for the first time at Twickenham in August.
Meanwhile, England’s experimental selection might betray an expectation to win. “It’s fascinating,” says Evans. “England are making some changes very, very late in the piece. The Fiji team are more comfortable when they’re the underdogs. Will it be a clash of styles? I’m not sure.”
Nothing speaks of the coming Fijian surge more vividly than that. Fiji’s talent is a given, but now they are starting to play with the authority of the established powers they strive to join. This World Cup may prove just a zephyr before the storm.
SOURCE: THE GUARDIAN/PACNEWS