No team is an island as Fiji are left at sixes and sevens
They began their tour with a full Test in front of 82,000 against England at Twickenham, moved on to Gloucester for a Tuesday friendly, flew from Birmingham to Shannon on Wednesday for today’s non-Test match and move on to Tbilisi for next Saturday’s tour finale against Georgia. Talk about getting the short end of the stick.
Ask Fiji head coach Inkike Male what this has been like logistically and he says, dryly, that it has been a tough tour to manage but one that had been designed by the IRB.
Male’s initial squad contained 16 home-based players, and in addition to limited training time and late call-ups, there were even reports of an alarming lack of footwear ahead of the game against England.
Mindful of their 14th-placed IRB ranking (the Georgians are 16th), Male said of the tour objectives on Thursday: “We hope to achieve something with our IRB ranking, and from the experience that the local boys will be exposed to.”
While the IRB invests over £4 million (4.9 million) annually in the islands’ rugby infrastructures, probably no rugby nation on earth has greater difficulty in assembling its players.
Indicative of the troubles was the case of Racing Metro lock Jone Qovu, who made himself unavailable for the tour through injury only to then turn out for his club against Perpignan on October 27th. The French Federation duly suspended Qovo until December 4th after the Fijian Federation formally complained to them.
This came within days of Munster backs coach and Racing’s former coach Simon Mannix revealing in the English newspaper the Independent that the Parisian club had paid three Fijians, including Qovu, so as not to play for Fiji in last year’s World Cup. The IRB re-stated that such actions flew in the face of their own regulations, although Racing strongly denied Mannix’s claim.
Unavailability of players
The Fijian replacement hooker Tuapati Talemaitoga, scorer of one of their tries in Tuesday’s narrow defeat to Gloucester, bemoans the unavailability of so many frontline players.
“We have heaps of players all around the world and there are problems with the clubs releasing them. Also we only stay in Fiji for two or three weeks to prepare for this tour; I don’t think that is fair.”
Additionally, of course, the preferred format amongst public and players alike is the sevens game. Deacon Manu says that this perception of them is a little patronising but also concedes it has an element of truth.
“It’s frustrating for guys to be known as sevens (specialists) but I suppose you have to give credit where credit is due and Fiji is up there in the top couple of teams in world sevens. So I guess it’s up to us, particularly Fijian forwards, to match what the backs can bring. In some regards we show that but not always for the full 80 minutes week in and week out.”
Talemaitoga admits: “Back at home they play sevens tournaments almost every week so that is really big there. I like to watch sevens but I was stuck in the frontrow so I was more suited to the 15-a-side game.”