Rugby World Cup: In a world of organized sport, Fiji bucks the trend

Under the lights of a quickly-emptying Stade de France, Fiji's rugby players came together for a huddle, a h...

Posted: Dec 21, 2018 2:11 PM
Updated: Dec 21, 2018 2:11 PM

Under the lights of a quickly-emptying Stade de France, Fiji's rugby players came together for a huddle, a hymn, and a thanks to God.

As the song drifted into the Parisian night, there was a sense that the words "eda sa qaqa" -- "we have overcome" -- carried more resonance than usual that November evening.

Ben Ryan

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This was the Fiji's first ever victory over France. A northern hemisphere tour which had started two weeks previously with a thumping 54-17 defeat by Scotland had ended on a high note.

When it comes to rugby, Fiji and France are poles apart, yet also share a curious bond.

While Fiji has no professional team or high-profile domestic league, French clubs boast the highest salaries in the world.

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The prospect of playing overseas is a sizable lure for Fijian players; of the starting 15 that won 21-14 on November 24, eight are based in France. But when it comes to assembling the national team, things become difficult.

"I know what talents players have. I know what they can offer," head coach John McKee told CNN World Rugby earlier this year. "But we've got a lot of work to do to pull that together because the competitive disadvantage is our players are spread all around the world.

"The challenge is getting them together in short assemblies and getting the absolute maximum performance in terms of a team from them."

There's no doubt that when Fiji's players get together for a consistent block of training and matches, things start to click. But it takes time. Fijian rugby is built on chaos -- the ability to create space through audacious offloads and spontaneous passes.

This ethos, says McKee, is down to the country's culture. Rugby is in every Fijian's blood. Pitches are squeezed onto all corners of the island; children play in the streets, and adults will end a day spent working in the fields by throwing around a ball.

"Everywhere there's a little flat bit of ground with a rickety old pair of goalposts put up," says the New Zealander, who was appointed Fiji's head coach in 2014. "There's always people playing ... you see that right across the country. You see the passion that people have for rugby and I think it's quite unique.

"You see a lot of unstructured games and the games they play in villages. You know, probably in Western society I think we've lost that ... sport has become so organized.

"So that, coupled with genetic, tall, lean athletes. Big, big athletes who can run really fast. Those things combine with that unique ability to play an unstructured game."

READ: Amid strikes and chaos, Canada qualifies for Rugby World Cup

Cultivating talent

How Fiji harnesses the raw talent at its disposal is a hot topic.

Establishing a Super Rugby franchise on the island has often been touted as an option, giving players the chance to earn a professional contract at home while competing against the best sides in Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and South Africa.

But on December 5, a bid made by Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa to set up a Pacific Island team based in Fiji was rejected by governing body SANZAAR.

McKee says he can't stop players heading to Europe to support their families and earn the "market value for them as rugby players." Yet a professional outfit based on or near the island, he admits, would hugely benefit the national team.

"I would hope that in two to three to four years there's some serious talk about getting a professional team based out of the Pacific," he says. "But for that, those things are out of our control."

READ: From Rio's favelas to the World Rugby Sevens

Ben Ryan, who coached Fiji's seven-a-side team to Olympic gold in 2016, says he was regularly in dialogue with McKee about how to grow and develop players.

"I had a great relationship with John," Ryan, who stepped down from his role with the sevens team after Olympic success, tells CNN. "We were constantly talking, constantly seeing the pathway that we could work on.

"You know, kid in the village, starts playing Fijian national sevens. We'd then consult with him, try and get him an overseas contract to continue his development and then John picks him for test matches. That was the pathway."

It was one that worked for the likes of Leone Nakarawa, the towering, multifaceted second row who plays in Paris for Racing 92. It also worked for Semi Radradra, the powerful Toulon center who is one of the few players in the world that alternates between international 15 and seven-a-side rugby.

Money talks

Ryan, who also advocates setting up a professional league in Fiji, thinks change needs to be made to improve the distribution of profits accrued from Test matches, particularly when a so-called "tier two" nation like Fiji faces its northern hemisphere rivals.

"I know the pots of money for World Rugby aren't infinite, but a player appearance fee, or making some of these tier one countries give them a bigger slice of the pot would help," says Ryan. "I know that the crowds are filling ... Fiji are a team that people want to watch.

"Extra amount of money with mechanisms in place so the money doesn't just disappear down the Fiji Rugby Union rabbit hole and it goes to the right bank accounts that World Rugby can regulate."

There was controversy in 2017 when it emerged that Samoan players received £650 for playing England at Twickenham, while English players banked £22,000 each.

Similarly, it came to light this year that Japanese players were receiving £13 for each day of their European tour, a drop in the ocean compared to the amount the likes of England, New Zealand, and Ireland receive.

This November, however, Fiji and Samoa were both officially accepted into the World Rugby Council for the first time. The hope is that Pacific Island nations will have greater influence over the scheduling of Test matches and distribution of funds.

READ: English rugby star braced for 'cut-throat' NFL switch

Japan 2019

With the World Cup around the corner, Ryan thinks further changes can be implemented to support the development of lower-ranked countries, namely by introducing plate and bowl competitions to the tournament as in rugby sevens.

"It's almost a shame with the current World Rugby how they do the World Cup, there's no secondary competition," says Ryan.

"For a lot of these teams, that's a chance to improve. If they had a plate competition, if of the last eight, the second eight that got knocked out -- Fiji would be able to stay as they get better and better. It would be really nice."

Few would bet on Fiji reaching the knockout rounds in Japan in a group that includes Australia and Wales, yet the Pacific Islanders have a history of springing upsets on rugby's biggest stage.

A shock victory over Wales in 2007 set up a quarterfinal clash with eventual champion South Africa. Fiji drew level with the Springboks with 15 minutes to go before eventually going down 37-20.

Under McKee's guidance, Fiji has beaten Italy, Scotland, and Japan in recent years. The victory over France lifted the Flying Fijians to No. 8 in the world rankings, defying their tag as a tier two nation.

McKee is confident his side can go far in Japan.

"Our objective is to go to the playoff stages. And I believe if we can get to the playoffs in the World Cup, anything can happen," he says.

"If we go to a quarterfinal of course we'd be happy, but if we get to a quarterfinal, we want to get to a semifinal. It's the old adage of looking one game at a time."

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