The Miss­ing Piece Of The Puz­zle For Fi­jian Rugby

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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.”

REAL PROB­LEM

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.”

John McKee

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