While the focus is on England, Australia and Wales in Pool A, Fiji are known for causing World Cup upsets. So how are they shaping up ahead of RWC 2015?
By Mark Coughlan
George Smith said recently that Fiji could progress from Pool A (along with Australia, obviously) at the World Cup. Okay, it was probably said with a glint in his wily eye, and designed to wind up the English and Welsh fans, as Australians love to do, but there’s no denying that Fiji are a serious opponent – so is it time for a South Pacific side to make a proper mark at a World Cup? If so, Fiji seem the most likely.
The palm-adorned white shirt has certainly made its presence known in previous outings, most famously seeing off Wales at the 2007 World Cup before running South Africa close in that epic quarter-final in Marseille. But there is a different feel about this side now, an order to the chaos and a steel to add to the spirit that is never waning.
The players, certainly, are a different force than they once were. Consider the clubs from which their World Cup squad has been assembled – Harlequins, Glasgow, Clermont, Bath, Stade Francais, Timisoara Saracens (Romanian, to answer your next question). It’s a formidable line up of clubs, and makes for a formidable squad that will challenge England on the opening night, and the rest of Pool A in the weeks that follow.
The weeks that follow, not days. There, too, the Fijians are coming with a better chance than they’ve had before. It’s taken them enough time, but World Rugby have finally given the minnow nations a fighting chance on the scheduling front. RW writer Russ Petty has gone into more detail, but the smaller nations have an extra rest compared to years gone by, and that could prove vital in leveling the playing field.
On the field, too, Fiji have solved a few issues. Their open running rugby – witnessed yesterday against Canada where inspired by Niko Matawalu they ran in five tries – has caused chaos for opponents throughout the years, but the lack of a conductor at ten has sometimes cost them. Step forward Ben Volavola. Josh Matavesi might be the safe choice at fly half, but Volavola has just been signed as the man to replace Dan Carter at the Crusaders – that’s how highly he is rated down south. Fast feet, quick hands and intelligence well ahead of his years mark him out as one to watch, whether he’s at ten, 12 or 15. Then there’s Crusaders back, Nemani Nadolo, who is 6ft 5in, 20st and can kick goals. He’ll be bringing defenders out in a cold sweat the night before.
Don’t forget, too, that Fiji only lost 17-13 to Wales in November last year – and that was despite having 14 men for the last 25 minutes. Ominous stuff.
Still not convinced? How about taking the opening night nerves into account? Lest we forget, England lost the opening match of the 1991 World Cup, and of course France were stunned by Argentina in 2007. If England start slowly on the first night of the World Cup, Fiji will smell blood. And they have the quality to get what they want.
Of course, Fiji aren’t the only South Pacific side heading to the World Cup with history on their mind. Samoa have faced their fair share of off-field problems in the build-up to the World Cup, and while they are missing some big names as a result, they have reached a peace agreement that should give the players fresh impetus. Much like Fiji, the Samoan reach has grown greatly in recent years, and they now have a pool of players who are making their mark at London Irish, Northampton, Cardiff and Toulouse to name just a few. Their pool, too, makes for happier reading than some. South Africa might prove a bridge too far, but Scotland and the USA are seriously beatable. Manage to get out of their group, and Samoa could face Wales in the quarter-final. Anyone remember any World Cup games between those two?