Welcome to the RWC2019 Debriefs. The World Cup is now over and a new 4 year cycle begins, but the first stage of any cycle should be looking back at how things went – what went wrong and what went right – before looking on to how things go for the next cycle to ensure qualification to RWC2023 (if they haven’t automatically qualified) and to make sure they enter that tournament in peak form.
I will be going through these debriefs alphabetically, so today I will be casting my eye over Fiji.
The Fijians qualified as Oceania 1, having won all 4 games over the 2016 and 2017 Pacific Nations Cups, finishing top of the aggregated standings over the 2 tournaments.
A loss away to Japan saw the Fijians finish 2nd of 6 teams in the 2019 edition of the Pacific Nations Cup. Their final warm-up game was a 29-19 victory over Pacific rivals Tonga.
- Pool Stages (3rd in Pool D)
- Australia 39-21 Fiji
- Fiji 27-30 Uruguay
- Georgia 10-45 Fiji
- Wales 29-17
This was a very disappointing tournament for Fiji. When making my predictions for the tournament, I thought that they had the best chance of pulling off an upset and making it into the knockouts, but instead they had to settle for just 1 win and were on the wrong end of an upset themselves, losing to Uruguay in a quick turnaround following the Australia game.
Though results didn’t go their way, they were by far one of the most exciting teams to watch in the pool stages. The Fijians are famous for their highly attacking, unstructured play, full of power, pace and insane handling abilities, but they have started to add more structure to their play when Ben Volavola is at fly half, putting them in the right parts of the field. Against Uruguay, some of this structure was lost as they played too loose (leading to a high number of handling errors and turnovers) and struggled with their kicking from the tee, which proved costly.
In the other games, however, they caused their opponents some real problems. They were arguably the better team against Australia before Peceli Yato – who until that point was their star player – was taken out, while the first 15 minutes against Wales saw them score 2 tries and have another disallowed. Semi Radradra was one of the stars of the tournament despite an early exit, while a number of other Fijians also showed their quality on the biggest stage.
One of the biggest downsides to Fiji for a while has been their discipline and unfortunately that was the case once again in this tournament. A high penalty count and yellow card to Levani Botia in the second half helped Australia gain the upper hand, while they spent a quarter of the match against Wales down to 14 men due to yellow cards for Tevita Cavubati for a moronic dangerous clear-out and Semi Kunatani.
Though they may have only got the one win, their performances against Australia and Wales, combined with a dominant run over recent years in the Pacific Nations Cup, showed just how important it is that Fiji stat playing Tier 1 opposition on a regular basis. They need to be playing at least a couple of Tier 1 Nations during the international windows, but more than that, I feel they need to get the Argentina treatment and be added to the Rugby Championship as soon as possible.
They also need to try and get to the stage where they an pick an entire squad of players who are in top flight competition, as a number of players (especially in the front row) are playing in lower tiers or – as with star scrum half Frank Lomani – back home in Fiji. Backs and back rowers may be the more attractive players when looking at Fijian players to sign, but there is quality at every position. Ideally, a Super Rugby franchise would help the national team get all their players top flight experience while also giving a top flight option for players that doesn’t involve moving abroad and potentially getting poached by another nation, but given the current state of the league, that does not look likely anytime soon.
What is clear is that there is a great squad here that is improving, and with automatic qualification secured for RWC2023 they can focus on preparing for the next tournament, so as long as they can continue to bring through the talent to replace the players reaching the end of their international career, there is no reason they can’t challenge for a place in the knockouts next time around.