By Lucy Lomax
Fiji’s 43-19 loss against the Barbarians at Twickenham this weekend was put on to celebrate the centenary year of Fijian rugby and as I was being serenaded with harmonies from Fijian supporters behind me at the game, I was led to ask how such a humble and small nation with a population of less than a million could produce such admirable and gifted rugby players.
Fiji have the highest player-population ratio of any rugby playing country and a titanic passion for the game to go with it. A common sight in many remote villages are rugby posts constructed out of any material sturdy and upright enough for the job, in readiness for toddlers who can kick almost before they learn to walk.
I have experienced first-hand the appetite Fiji have for sport whilst coaching in a local school on Niubasaga island. Break-time would see boys weaving in and out of the girls netball games, side stepping and making tackles whilst simultaneously dodging a stray cricket ball; organised chaos at its best!
The islanders’ ability to create tries from nowhere, accompanied by the athleticism and physical prowess of the players, has meant that many Tier One rugby-playing nations have been scouting the depth and breadth of the South Pacific hoping to bottle some of the top-class talent that continues to flow from the region like a running tap.
So now to turn our attention to the Barbarians. We were promised an exhilarating free-flowing game and the second half, especially, did not disappoint. The entertainment could have passed as a training session with a total of ten tries worthy of jumping out of your seat for, with jaw-dropping, audacious moments of skill from both sides.
The pace showcased by the islanders, which led to Fiji’s opening try created by Glasgow Warriors Nikola Matawalu, was breathtaking. The only aspect of the game which caused frustration from the crowd was the tendency of the French referee to go upstairs to the video referee when groundings were, in the crowd’s opinion, glaringly obvious.
This slightly disrupted the flow of the game with the score 17-7 at the break, but in the second-half this was forgotten as both teams emerged from the tunnel with what seemed a revitalized hunger for crossing the whitewash.
The more powerful Barbarians managed to put a total of seven tries on the Flying Fijians with All Black Charles Piutau providing a spectacular spin out of tackle to score, some terrifically timed offloads from Springbok skipper Jean de Villiers plus two sparkling finishes from Bok bruiser Bismarck du Plessis to cap off a Man of the Match performance.
Despite this enthrallment some question the relevance of this invitational side in the professional era, arguing that it may be more of a burden to play for the multi-national side rather than an honour. However, seeing the attendance figures of Saturday’s game – 67,319 – I don’t think the fans would agree. Fans appreciate a game where they can be neutral, where players can express themselves and where the focus is mainly on enjoyment and entertainment, because ultimately, that is what rugby is all about.
The Baabaas are still the only team in the world where players from any country come together and play alongside each other without the need to take it too seriously. For Southern Hemisphere players it is the nearest thing to the Lions, and despite the onerous demands of the professional era, the players want to play for the Barbarians and the supporters turn up in their droves want to watch proven by the 67,319 that turned up to Twickenham on a chilly Saturday afternoon.
As long as those two factors remains intact we’ll have enthralling rugby spectacles for many years to come.