Future bright for Flying Fijians despite World Cup heartache

Fiji's head coach Simon Raiwalui (L) and Fiji's centre Waisea Nayacalevu (R) attend the team anouncement presser

Fiji's head coach Simon Raiwalui (L) says the future is bright for his team. Photo: AFP

Published Oct 16, 2023

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The future is bright for Fijian rugby despite the agony of their World Cup quarter-final exit at the hands of England, according to coach Simon Raiwalui.

The Flying Fijians were one of the highlights of the tournament so far with their exciting brand of attacking rugby full of offloads, powerful running and moments of ingenuity.

It was on display once again in Marseille on Sunday.

While playing with a numerical disadvantage following the sin-binning of winger Vinaya Habosi, fly-half Vilimoni Botitu scooped up a bobbling ball, flicked it through his own legs to No.8 Viliame Mata to side-step England centre Manu Tuilagi and plunge over for a try.

That was followed by a quick-fire brace in the second half that included a delicate offload from rampaging winger Semi Radradra and perfectly timed and angled bursts over the gainline from forwards Peni Ravai and Isoa Nasilasila.

Ultimately, the steady boot of England fly-half Owen Farrell crushed Fijian hearts, but Raiwalui feels the country's rugby is in a great place for the future.

"One of the things that's changed in our pathways is the strength in depth, we have 33 players able to play at the highest level and it shows," said Raiwalui.

"It's going to bear real fruit for Fiji rugby in 2027, 2031 (the next two World Cups) and moving on from there because we've got a very young generation with the players coming through behind."

Since the last World Cup in 2019 in Japan when Fiji won only one match and lost three in the pool stages, a Fiji-based franchise, the Fijian Drua, has been included in the southern hemisphere Super Rugby Pacific competition.

In only their second season in 2023, the Drua won six out of their 15 matches, and reached the knock-out stages.

With the high performance academy on the island as well, Fiji have a number of opportunities for talented young players to develop their game and build up to full international level, such as the under-20s team and the Fiji Warriors, the equivalent of a B team.

But it is the advent of the Drua that has really pushed up standards.

'An exciting future'

There used to be a gaping gap between the Fijian players plying their trade in the big leagues in the southern and northern hemispheres, and the amateurs still playing on the island and making up the rest of the squad.

But now, the Drua franchise means that Fiji's head coach can pick an entire squad of professional players playing top level rugby week in, week out.

"The template is there, the system is there for long term success. There is an exciting future for Fijian rugby," said Raiwalui.

Fiji produced some impressive performances against Tier 1 nations at the World Cup, and even before it.

They earned a historic first victory over England -- 30-22 at Twickenham in a warm-up match in August - and then also turned over Australia 22-15 in Pool C last month, their first win over the Wallabies in 69 years.

The were narrowly defeated 32-26 by Wales in their pool before coming agonisingly close against England in the quarter-finals, pipped 30-24 in a gallant defeat.

Fiji scored 11 tries across those four games.

But they also showed a lack of consistency, struggling to overcome Georgia and then losing to minnows Portugal in their pool.

Raiwalui believes Fiji need more international Tests against Tier 1 nations to keep improving, and would like to be invited to join the southern hemisphere Rugby Championship.

But he said the team needs to show through their performances that they deserve to be included.

"We have to be more consistent when we play, more consistent in our preparation," he said.

"What we've shown this year, we've grown in that area and it's only going to grow as we go towards 2027 and 2031.

"We have to put ourselves in the shop window with our performance and what we've done.

"And if we've got that infrastructure there and consistent success, when the opportunity comes up, hopefully we'll get a chance."

AFP