CHECK­ING OUT THE FLY­ING FIJIANS

Fiji Sun - - Sport - SHEL­DON CHANEL

Rugby fans and so­cial me­dia com­men­ta­tors haven’t held back in their crit­i­cism of the Fiji Airways Fly­ing Fijians af­ter they nar­rowly beat Samoa 10-3 on Sat­ur­day night.

In a scrappy af­fair at Suva’s ANZ Stadium, vet­eran winger Vereniki Goneva’s try in the 46th minute proved the dif­fer­ence de­spite a late Samoan surge.

The vis­i­tors worked their socks off in at­tack and en­joyed bet­ter pos­ses­sion and ter­ri­tory stats through­out the 80 min­utes. They could have drawn level at the death had a late try not been dis­al­lowed for a knock-on, a de­ci­sion that at­tracted the ire of Samoan cap­tain Jack Lam.

But Fiji was also equally pro­fi­cient in their de­fen­sive third, calmly neu­tral­is­ing at­tack af­ter at­tack to frus­trate their South Sea coun­ter­parts.

Cap­tain Do­miniko Waqaniburo­tu led the defence with some au­thor­ity, while fel­low loose for­wards Semi Ku­natani and Vil­iame Mata also put in de­cent shifts. In the end, it was a win achieved through grit and de­ter­mi­na­tion even as Fiji’s trade­mark flair and ex­pan­sive style was miss­ing from its at­tack.

So then where is the scathing crit­i­cism com­ing from and is all of it jus­ti­fied?

Some com­men­ta­tors on Face­book group, Fiji Rugby Coaches Fo­rum, claim that Fiji’s last con­vinc­ing win over a strong op­po­nent was against the Maori All Blacks in Suva last month. Since then, they say, the team has lacked “vigour, in­ten­sity and fit­ness,” point­ing to the 34-21 loss against Ja­pan as evidence of Fiji’s supposed de­cline.

SO­CIAL ME­DIA RE­FRAIN

The crit­i­cism took a notably anx­ious turn fol­low­ing Aus­tralia’s su­perb 47-26 dis­missal of the All Blacks in Perth on Sat­ur­day (Fiji open their World Cup cam­paign against the Wal­la­bies on Septem­ber 21).

The re­frain on so­cial me­dia then be­came: “Do the Fly­ing Fijians have any chance of beat­ing the Wal­la­bies af­ter what they did to the best team in world rugby?” Per­haps the crit­ics are be­ing too neg­a­tive and ex­pect too much too early, when clearly, the coach is still ex­per­i­ment­ing and fig­ur­ing out his best side.

When Mc­Kee named his 31-mem­ber squad for the World Cup build-up games, he said ev­ery­one would get a chance to play be­fore any­thing is fi­nalised.

He has stuck to his word and the line-up in each game has been dif­fer­ent, with the coach try­ing mul­ti­ple com­bi­na­tions and fo­cussing on im­prov­ing spe­cific ar­eas. On the wing for ex­am­ple, Filipo Nakosi, Patrick Os­borne, Eroni Sau and Jo­sua Tuisova have been most prom­i­nent in Mc­Kee’s ro­ta­tion pol­icy.

There have been tweaks at cen­tre, too, which is an­other area the coach has ex­per­i­mented in with Waisea Nay­a­calevu, Le­vani Bo­tia and Jale Vatubua (Semi Radradra was out in­jured for the first few games).

The con­stant changes have slightly dis­turbed the rhythm a team can de­velop with an es­tab­lished start­ing XV.

But Mc­Kee by now can be ex­pected to be well-versed with the at­tributes of his player

And hope­fully, the coach is in a po­si­tion to make an in­formed team selection for Ja­pan – which was the main goal of the build-up cam­paign, any­way. MORE THAN ONE TRICK

You can al­ready see things falling into place in some as­pects of Fiji’s game.

For in­stance, take the defence in the Samoa game, which wasn’t an easy one any way you look at it.

Yes, there was lit­tle flair and al­most no risk-tak­ing.

But Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United and Eng­land’s most suc­cess­ful foot­ball man­ager, once said: “At­tack wins you games, defence wins you ti­tles.” While his state­ment was a ref­er­ence to win­ning foot­ball matches, it is still ap­pli­ca­ble in rugby. Against Samoa, Fiji showed they have more than one trick up their sleeve and that the team can at­tack as well as de­fend com­pe­tently.

The vis­i­tors set-up to suf­fo­cate the Fijians and counter their ex­pan­sive style, which to some ex­tent worked.

How­ever, the Fijians adapted well and were happy to let Samoa have the ball af­ter go­ing ahead in the se­cond-half.

That abil­ity to adapt and re-ad­just mid-game will be use­ful dur­ing the World Cup, where teams will look to de­prive Fiji of pos­ses­sion and dom­i­nate them ter­ri­to­ri­ally.

While some fans have be­gun to panic 39 days out from the World Cup, the team has been composed and pa­tient on the field.

Only time will tell whether that will trans­late into any­thing mean­ing­ful at the World Cup. One thing is cer­tain, though: Mc­Kee’s team is on course to be­ing one of the best-pre­pared Fi­jian sides to play at a World Cup. -Edited by Leone Cabenatabu­a

Photo: Ron­ald Ku­mar

Ben Volavola (with ball) dur­ing the Fiji Airways Fly­ing Fijians Cap­tain’s Run at Albert Park, Suva on Au­gust 9, 2019.

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