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