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Tuesday Aug 15, 2023

Why Fiji's rise in world rankings is unsettling Wales and Wallaby supporters

Fiji’s connection to rugby is more than a sport. The Fijian style of play, marked by breathtaking runs, creative offloads, and dazzling tries, is a testament to their love for the sport and their unique approach to it. They have a rich history in the world of international rugby, from their incredible dominance in the 7s circuit to their wonderful creativity in the 15s game.

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Although the national side hasn’t been seen to perform at their highest heights for quite some time, the squad, backed by captain Semi Radradra, is now causing ripples around the rugby world.

Currently unbeaten in 2023, Fiji are picking up some serious momentum heading into the 2023 World Cup, as they line up in Pool C alongside Australian and Wales sides currently undertaking a major overhaul.

Also providing them with plenty of challenge will be a Georgia side, relishing their opportunity to stage an upset and prove their reasons for being included in the Six Nations. A hungry and in-form Portugal side will also provide opposition not to be underestimated, especially after their heroics in the qualification stages.

Fiji will be fancying their chances, however, as they arrive in France with a squad filled to the brim with talent.

Fiji’s approach to the game has matured in recent years, improved significantly just over the past year by Head Coach, Simon Raiwalui. The former Fiji international has bolstered the team’s consistency and overall performance through a mixture of tactical nous and the understanding of what makes a Fiji team, Fijian.

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Previously serving as General Manager of High Performance, Raiwalui spoke about the prospects ahead of him, at the time of his promotion to Head Coach: “I have been invested in Fijian rugby since I was 22 and first played for the country,”

“I have represented the country, captained the country and now to coach the Flying Fijians is a huge honour.

“It’s a short runway with seven months to the World Cup. We have a lot of work to do but the biggest thing is reconnecting with the people, we must be the team of the people.

“My job is to give direction to the staff and a purpose to the players.”

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Since February, he has crafted a game plan that accentuates the national sides natural strengths, whilst addressing vulnerabilities that have been paramount to improve in the intensely competitive environment of the Rugby World Cup.

This incredible rise of the flying Fijians is setting up a mouth-watering prospect in Pool C for which very few will be able to genuinely predict the outcome.

It’s not since 2007 that Fiji have really shone in a World Cup – when they reached the quarter-finals before bowing out to eventual winners South Africa. It was in this tournament that Fiji shocked a Wales side that would go on to win a Grand Slam Six Nations the following year.

In what became one of the greatest ever tournament matches, Fiji took apart a Welsh side filled with talent including a prime Shane Williams, purely through flamboyant running rugby and a desire to upset the ‘goliaths’ of the time.

Since their impressive exploits at the 2007 World Cup, their proceeding tournaments would not provide quite as fruitful. Continually inducted into groups alongside Wales, and more often than not, Australia, the Pacific Island team were not able to repeat their heroics of 13 years ago.

In an effort to build upon the innate talents of Fijian players, there have been many advancements for those involved in Fijian rugby, not least with the introduction of the Super Rugby Pacific side, Fijian Drua. This club was founded by Fiji Rugby Union back in 2017 when they were inducted into the Australian National Rugby Championship, before being introduced to Super Rugby for the 2022 season.

This creation has had a huge impact on the national side; with purely Fijian players performing for Fiji Drua, many see it as a breeding ground for quality Fijian players to make the step up to the international level.

Fijian Drua

The small nation of Fiji is screaming for their talented pool of players to exceed their previous record of the quarter-finals, but even with their current run of quality performances, it still appears somewhat of a pipe dream. Their first step is to rise from the group stage consisting of the two-time World Cup winners Australia, as well as a Wales side that always appear to bounce back and perform their best rugby when the chips are down.

Australia arrive at the tournament under the tutelage of two-time World Cup finalist Head Coach Eddie Jones, as they look to use the world’s biggest rugby tournament to bed in a number of young and inexperienced players as the ‘land down under’ set their sights firmly on tournaments beyond this one.

Wales find themselves in a similar position as they look to rebuild following a series of unexpected retirements which has left their squad without depth or experience. Whilst this is arguably the poorest period of Welsh rugby since the late 90s, they will still not be an easy side to dismantle.

Fiji’s first two games in the World Cup will see them face both of the aforementioned sides, so a defeat in both of these will inevitably mean an early exit for a side that offers so much potential. Should Fiji continue their run of great form and generate victories from one or both of these matches, they will then be tasked with the unenviable prospect of facing a Georgia side that many have been appealing to join the Six Nations.

Georgia will not be an easy feat by any means, in fact their last meeting resulted in a 15-15 draw, back in 2021, which both sides will need no reminding of. This being said, the change in leadership and the growth of the Fijian squad leads many to believe that they will now be too strong for their Georgian counterparts.

Their final match of the competition will see the World Cup newcomers Portugal go toe to toe with the Fijians in what is expected to be a fascinating game. Portugal recently defeated the USA 46-20 as part of their World Cup preparations, so it’s expected that European debutants will be eager to shock the world with a statement victory.

While Fiji’s talent is obvious, they do not have the immense funding that other Tier 1 nations are able to put together, which leads to poorer training facilities among other effects. This impact, alongside the other Pacific Island nations, Tonga and Samoa, makes the journey to the zenith of the rugby stratosphere a harder task – despite the obvious talents and rugby values that these nations show.

With each match, Fiji paint a vibrant picture of resilience and excellence. As they step onto the World Cup stage, they carry the hopes and dreams of a nation that lives, breathes, and dreams, rugby.

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