Fiji coach John McKee believes the Pacific islanders could spring a surprise at next year’s World Cup, driven by international exposure and smartphone technology.
Kiwi McKee, who has only been in charge since May, is currently undergoing an exhausting European trip assessing the strengths and weaknesses of a side who will face France and Wales in November.
The clash with the Welsh will be a World Cup dress rehearsal as the two countries are in Pool A at the 2015 global showpiece along with Australia, England and Uruguay.
“To qualify for the quarter-finals of the World Cup is something which would be a surprise, but why not?” McKee told AFP.
“But for me as a coach my philosophy on where I want to be is to be competitive with the Tier 1 countries, and in one, two or three years to see Fiji go and play England, France or Ireland not as a Tier 2 against a Tier 1 country.”
With so many of Fiji’s best players enjoying lucrative club contracts in Europe — in particular, in the money-spinning French Top 14 — McKee has turned to technology to give him an extra edge.
Fiji rugby union national team winger Timoci Nagusa carries balls on November 3, 2014 during trainin …
“It can be tricky to keep track of our players in France and in the UK while we live in the southern hemisphere. I am spending more time travelling. I came to Europe in April — I went to Clermont, Brive, Toulouse.
“We’ll do it again in March. I want to see the clubs as well, not just the players, to build some relationships.”
Smartphones are employed to provide finger-tip hints on fitness levels on those players plying their trade in Europe.
“With my senior players, we are working with Skype conference calls and we have a database system where they enter their information — if they have new injuries, they tell us how they are sleeping, what their energy levels are like,” explained McKee.
The New Zealander has had plenty of experience of Europe — from 2000-2002 he was in charge of Clermont and took them to the French championship final.
He believes two of his most crucial tasks will be developing Fijian skills outside of their traditional excellence on the wings, at half-back and in the backrow.
McKee also wants Fijians playing for Fiji by implementing a long-term plan which will convince them not to jump into the arms of the All Blacks.
“The talent is enormous but potential is not being realised because there has been no medium- or long-term vision. We know we can develop our own style of play and not try to copy the big teams.
“But for that to happen, we need to improve our systems of play. There’s no reason why we cannot do that. Look at the Top 14 in France — some of the best players are Fijian.”
The key, reckons McKee, is transforming Fiji into a scrummaging nation — something which has been traditionally alien to a team weaned on weaving, running rugby and not the brute force of the boiler room.
“We want to create the opportunities for Fijian front-rowers to play in good competitions. We have players with the right size but there is not the culture of the scrum like there is in Samoa and Tonga,” said the coach.
“When clubs are looking for a prop they look for a Tongan or a Samoan; if they are looking for a winger or a back row, maybe they look for a Fijian.
“It’s very hard for (front row) players to come from Fiji and to compete directly at the international level because the gap is huge.”