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.”
Despite playing for the last five years with Southland in New Zealand, Talemaioga only ever wanted to represent Fiji. “I was born and raised in Fiji and played age group for Fiji until I moved to New Zealand. I just love to play for my country.”
But he does concede that many young Fijian players grow up dreaming of playing for the All Blacks, and a host of players, notably wingers such as Joe Rokocoko and Sitiveni Sivivatu, duly have done so.
Nor is it just New Zealand and the All Blacks who cherry pick Fijian players. “There are several players not available to us for this tour because they want to play for other countries,” according to Male, after New Zealand-born Mako Vunipola, the son of Tongan international Fe’ao Vunipola, was called up to the English squad.
“Young players now want to pursue options for other countries rather than coming on tour which is not a good sign. We have got a lot of problems caused by European countries, especially France and England, who have taken some of our players through their academies when they were young. England and France have got a lot of players to pick from already and, as a small country, for our players to be poached from us is not acceptable.
“There is one very talented player we wanted to select who went to an English academy and he is now 16 years old and has opted to play for England. It is very obvious what is happening. If you go to the (Fijian) secondary school championships you will see scouts from Australia, New Zealand and England trying to find your players who want to go overseas.They are taking our young players like vultures.”
“I will not tell you the specific players but I know of players who get invited to the UK when they are 14,” Male told the Times a couple of weeks ago. “Now as 17-year-olds they are opting to play for England. That means everybody here who is young wants to play for England. As a good player that’s what they choose and we respect that but it is mainly because of the money. That’s what happened when boys are given the option. We need the IRB to stop this (three-year eligibility) rule or change it.”
So, not much to contend with then. Just the rival attraction of the sevens game, plus the drain of their leading lights to the All Blacks and a largely expatriate player base scattered to all corners of the world who are often not released to play for Fiji or are themselves disinclined to.
Not to mention richer countries now talent scouting their islands. No wonder the Flying Fijians are left with a shell of a side from a group of islands perhaps second only to Samoa for producing the most natural rugby talent per head of population on the planet.