The Missing Piece Of The Puzzle For Fijian Rugby
Vodafone Flying Fijian coach John McKee says the Fijian Warriors’ inclusion in next year’s National Rugby Championship (NRC) is the missing piece of the puzzle which will help lift the island nation’s status in the rugby world. Australian Rugby Union boss Bill Pulver recently announced in Sydney that Fiji will become the ninth team in next year’s NRC.
For the Pacific Island nations, who have been crying out for a professional domestic team for years, the news is music to their ears. “One of the big challenges for us in the Pacific is developing and strengthening our pathway for our talented young players,” McKee told foxsports.com.au. “It’s quite evident— you can see across the sevens and 15s game— that we’ve certainly got plenty of talented young rugby players, but to transfer that talent through this to the level where we’re getting teams to Rugby World Cups that are truly competitive, is a big, big challenge. “Competitions such as the NRC help align what we’re doing around our academies and our domestic competition and under-18s.
“It’s almost like the missing piece that will help some of our best young talent in the Pacific for a little longer.”
In September, recently departed gold medal-winning Fijian sevens coach Ben Ryan slammed player agents across France, Australia and New Zealand for plucking Fijian youngsters out of their homeland by dangling contracts in front of them.
He called it the “Wild West.” “I went to Toulon in pre-season and they knew about 15-year-olds that were playing in Fiji school competitions,” Ryan told the BBC.
“They’ll go to the villages, they’ll give some money or incentives to their family to get them to go overseas. “Then they’ll take them to their French, Australian or New Zealand clubs or schools or academies. “Some guys will make it, some guys won’t. “It’s an educated gamble that more often than not pays off.” McKee said Ryan’s comments were “a bit of an exaggeration,” but hopes that Fiji’s inclusion in the NRC, which will effectively serve as a national second team, will help keep young players at home for longer during their developing years.
“If our best young players can stay at home for an extra 18 months or two years, they’ll be better prepared as professional rugby players and they’ll actually have better professional rugby careers,” McKee said. “I’ve seen a problem— since I’ve been involved with Fiji in the last three years — particularly in Europe, that players are getting recruited at a very young age— 17, 18 and 19-year-olds — go to Europe, France in particular, they don’t always reach their potential. “Some of them do, you see some like (Josua) Tuisova, who you saw at Rio and playing at Toulon. He’s a success story, but there are some other young guys who just haven’t reached their potential. “The problem for a lot of young Fijian guys, especially if they’re only 18 or 19 years of age, they come from a Fijian society that is very family orientated, a very village based society and there’s a strong support structure for young men in Fiji, and to grab a young guy and drop them into a club in France, he’s going into an environment which is just so absolutely foreign to him that it’s hard for us to sit here in Sydney and understand that.
“I think this competition will be a great help in that area.”
LONG TERM GOAL
McKee, who is preparing his Flying Fijians to face the Barbarians in Belfast before two Tests against England and Japan, said that although Fiji had qualified for the NRC, the long-term goal is still to have a team included in Super Rugby. But the Fijian coach said that his adopted nation had to first build on its marketability to become sustainably viable. “The reality is, as much as there might be a will to have a Super Rugby team in the Pacific, it’s got to be a commercial reality for SANZAAR and the broadcasters,” he said. “Fiji and the Pacific have a lot to prove, this competition is a great move down that pathway. “It’s going to come open in the next round (of competition negotiations) or sometime in the future, certainly from Fiji’s point of view we want to be in the best position to show that we can host events, that we can play in cross border competitions, but we’re going to have to work hard to put together some commercial partners to make it a reality because at the end of the day when the bid’s on the table, if it hasn’t got a commercial reality around it, it’s not going to get across the line.” Fiji, along with England and Uruguay, were knocked out of last year’s World Cup in group A’s “pool of death.” And while the Flying Fijians managed just the one win, a 47-15 victory over Uruguay, they lost few supporters for their spirited performances and desire to run the ball.
NEXT WORLD CUP
McKee said that Fiji were targeting the knockout stages at the 2019 World Cup and hoped that an increased emphasis on sports science would help them monitor their players after years of last minute preparation.
“We’ve got the talent pool to be serious contenders to get into the play-offs, now we need to get some other things around our game right,” McKee said.
“But there’s a lot more than getting a talented bunch of athletes these days.
“Probably around the off field, around our sports science and with our players around the world, I think we’ve gone in three years from almost having no structure and process to having an OK way of tracking our players. “We could improve on that a lot in the next 12-18 months, so that in the 18 months leading up to the World Cup, we really know who our top players are and what their form is. “Around our sports science, we could be a bit better.”