Destined for greatness

Fijian winger Rupeni Caucau prepares to grubber the ball forward to score a try against Scotland in the 2003 Rugby World Cup.

FRB is taking you back to June 24, 2007; as Fiji prepares for the 2007 Rugby World Cup in France. Former national coach Ilivasi Tabua took over from Kiwi Wayne Pivac (two months before the tournament) and charged the team up reaching the quarterfinals losing to eventual winner South Africa. The article is a precursor to an opinion FRB is preparing after the European tour by the Flying Fijians.

Please read on:

Fiji is destined for greatness in rugby even though reaching the lowest level failing to qualify for the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa.

After peaking in the inaugural tournament in 1987, the fleet-footed Fijians continued to spiral downwards until reaching its lowest point in the third tournament when the Springboks won a home title against New Zealand in the final at Ellis Park, Johannesburg.

Warning signs had been showing in the lead up to the 1991 tournament but unperturbed Fiji went ahead and without warning bowed out of the tournament early registering three pool match defeats.

If that had not been enough to wake the magical ball carriers from their slumber; the worst was still to come.

A lot of rugby followers had been puzzled; what had happened to the dazzling Fijians?

The Fiji Rugby Union and the sports mad nation had been smitten by the rugby sevens fever; straying from their roots of the full code.

Fiji had made an immediate impact in the full code on their first tour overseas with the unprecedented unbeaten tour of New Zealand in 1939; recording seven wins and a draw which included triumphs over the champion Auckland side and the Maoris; a record which still stands today.

The Fijians played with a happy-go-lucky ease on New Zealand parks, attracting the crowds unheard of in some stadiums with their free flow passing and running game as the afro-frizzy haired islanders made touchdown after touchdown.

The tour was subsequently followed up with more tours of New Zealand, Australia and Europe for the next four decades as rugby unions heard of their unmatched skills in New Zealand and invited them over.

But the 70s had brought with it new fad for Fijian rugby followers.

With the sweet success of continual Hong Kong tournament wins with the shorter but free running game in the 70s through the 80s the focus was beginning to shift away from the main game.

Wholesale conversions were made throughout the nation as unprecedented crowds on the island nation sat mesmerized around the radio as commentator Graham Eden relayed play by play coverage of Fiji’s exploits in Asia every February and March.

The abbreviated code stood tall and unchallenged as it took its toll with most domestic competition culminating with the annual Mecca to Hong Kong swallowing the main game from its dominant place.

No wonder Fiji reached the nadir of its history when lo and behold the side failed to qualify for the 1995 championship.

Samoa now stood tall relegating Fiji from the throne of the sport in the region with Tonga making the cut to play in the championship.

The Manu Samoa team had never seriously challenged Fiji for decades had joined the fray with fervour; propelled forward by the support of one of the IRB stalwarts New Zealand with the added boost of New Zealand groomed players.

The unheralded Manu Samoa opened their 1991 campaign with an upset 16-13 win over traditional powerhouse Wales in their stronghold at the old Cardiff Arms Park.

As Fiji fell to lowly rated Canada 3-13, France 9-33 and Romania; that’s right even unknown Romania by two points 15-17; Samoa continued their climb.

Samoa qualified for the quarterfinals after getting pipped by eventual winners Australia 9-3, and accounting for Argentina 35-12.

Samoa bowed out with a 6-28 loss to Scotland in the last eight.

While the 1995 international championship kicked off at  Newlands Stadium in Capetown on May 25 between hosts South Africa and reigning 1991 champions Australia; Fiji was consigned to watch the televised match back home; licking their wounds and pride.

The stark reality of the fall began to engulf the nation as the FRU began some soul searching to find solutions to the problem.

As the weight of responsibility began to take hold and the reality of the professional game brushing forward with a rush; the FRU swallowed their pride and allowed wholesale changes to improve the game.

The long held rule of only selecting local players for the national side fell by the wayside as the introduction of New Zealand and Australian bred players made an instant impact playing for the side.

The biggest influence and impact made was the was new found confidence in the game brought about by Kiwi technical adviser Brad Johnstone who had proven without a shadow of a doubt that he could bring revival after Fiji’s win over undisputed regional champion Samoa in 1994.

The three year humiliation of defeats by the Samoans was finally washed away with the 20-13 win at Prince Charles Park even though Fiji had failed to qualify for the RWC the following year.

The New Zealand and Australian born Fijians selected into national selection instantly brought depth and cohesion which had been lost through the years of focus on Hong Kong.

The Fijians made better showings in the 1999 and 2003 championships but failing to win berths in the quarterfinals.

Kiwi coaches Brad Johnstone and Mac McCallion had brought back respectability to the Fijian team but failed to fire the imagination of the rugby followers who know that they have what it takes to win; win the big one.

Fiji has the capability of hoisting the golden William Webb Ellis Cup but has been kept out of the groove to prove to the world and themselves that their God given abilities and athleticism can be utilized to win it.

Coach Ilivasi Tabua has been given the reins to prepare the men and will need to bring stability and hunger to prepare in the best way possible in two months before the first kick off between hosts France and Argentina at the Stade de France on September 7.

There will be no time for hanky pankying because whether we choose to emulate the preparation by the 1987 All Blacks, the strategic Australians or the abundance of coaches by England’s Clive Woodward we need to plough ahead and make the days count.

The Kiwis resolved before the inaugural tournament to be the fittest team, run their opposition off their feet and be the strongest in the set pieces and play a brand of rugby based on reaching excellence.

The Aussies had a lot of fitness but used the cunning of Bob Dwyer in 1991 and strategist Rod McQueen in 1999 to outsmart the other bigger teams in New Zealand, England, France and Wales.

Reigning champions England used a lot of resources in funding a huge contingent of coaches led by Woodward to manage every aspect of the game and with the kicking boots of Jonny Wilkinson clinched the trophy in Australia in 2003.

1999 coach Brad Johnstone believes a month long camp and a bigger personnel staff would be the solution to recover lost time before the French tournament.

We will see what Tabua decides in the two months left before the kickoff in France.

We hope he makes the best decision and we support him all the way.

United behind him and the team we will see the best campaign yet for Fiji.

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Filed under Feature, Focus on rwc, Opinion

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