Flying Fijians coach John MCkee has mapped out the two and half months left before the opening match against England at the Rugby World Cup on September 18.
“We have a big mountain to climb,” said McKee after a torrid Beep Test of the national squad at the Veiuto Primary School basketball courts in Suva on Thursday.
The Flying Fijians marched into camp last Wednesday with McKee having his work cut out with high expectations from the rugby mad nation and the support of an armada of financiers and investors keen on big returns for the Rugby World Cup in England. Before the RWC though, the team has some business to take care of in the match against the New Zealand Maoris and the Pacific Nations Cup.
Squinting his eyes focusing on the questions lined up from television, radio and press reporters he enthusiastically relays his answers squarely.
“We have had a relaxed start,” he shared on the mood of the squad who had arrived at the Novotel Suva at Lami Bay.
Most of the squad have reported in while a few stragglers are still finishing off their season or sorting out travel tickets and visas to get into the country from club commitments all over the globe.
McKee said he was happy to see the squad in camp and looked forward to the big task ahead of the preparing the team for planet’s biggest rugby showcase in England.
The serious training will begin this week in line with the first match against the Maori All Blacks on Saturday.
“It will be a very good game to get our campaign off,” McKee said.
The Maoris are a shadow national Kiwi team and could easily fit into the boots of the All Blacks line up which has a big feature Test match against Manu Samoa on Wednesday in Apia.
“Very good opposition, the side is very good off counter attacks, it is the strength of their game,” McKee said.
“We have a similar style so it will be an exciting open game.”
He said the quality opposition would be the best lead up to the PNC.
The side went through fitness, endurance and strength tests at the Veiuto courts, Rabuka Gymnasium to analyze each player before getting into the serious training.
The question of the fly-half position has been high in the minds of enthusiasts after the lackluster performance by Nadroga flyhalf Jonetani Ralulu during the November European tour.
But coach McKee said the positions would be finalized this week with the Number 10 spot going to either incumbent Ralulu, Super 14 Waratahs fringe player Ben Volavola or Guinness Pro 12 Ospreys centre Josh Matavesi who shared the spot with Ralulu in November.
McKee said veteran Flying Fijian Seremaia Bai would be arriving too late to be included for selection for the side against the Maori but would definitely be a good contender for the berth for the PNC matches.
Fiji has a busy schedule and opens the PNC campaign against Tonga at the ANZ Stadium in Suva on July 18, against Samoa in Sacramento, California on July 24 and against up and coming Japan at the BMO Field in Toronto, Canada July 29 before the playoffs for the six positions at Swanguard Stadium in Burnaby, east of Vancouver, British Columbia on August 3.
McKee said the PNC was an important tournament for the Flying Fijians because it allowed the team to measure itself internationally against Manu Samoa and Tonga.
As well the inclusion of the strong Cherry Blossoms and US and Canada have added value to the competition.
“We are able to blood players and it is very important for the years in between the Rugby World Cup,” he said.
“While the Tier One Southern Hemisphere teams are having their competition it is important for Fiji and to bring in their squad and test their combinations.”
He said the PNC was quite competitive with Samoa and Tonga always giving the Fijians a good go and the up and up Japanese side doing really well.
He said the competition in North America had its downside being held so far from home but conceded that the weather conditions could be blessing in disguise especially in Canada in light of the RWC where it could be quite cold.
He said even though the squad faced the Pool of Death in the RWC with England, Australia, Wales and Uruguay to contend with, the team was up for the challenge to emulate or even better the feats of the 1987 and 2007 teams that reached the quarterfinals.
Fiji has a 33 percent rate of reaching the quarters from the six out of the seven RWC tournaments it took part in missing out in the 1995 in South Africa after failing to qualify.
“I won’t make any predictions as to which team we will defeat in the pool matches but I know the squad has the depth and potential to reach the quarterfinals,” McKee said.
He said he was happy with the inclusion of Blue Bulls coach Frans Ludeke in the coaching staff.
He would bring a lot of cohesion in the forwards lineouts and restarts. McKee said Ludeke would also bring a lot of tactics to counter the European teams with the defence of the rolling mauls and attacking mauls from lineouts and South African aggression.
He said because the Fijian teams were not accustomed to the rolling mauls in local competitions, the European teams used it intentionally to slow the game down and use their upper body strengths to outgun the Fijians.
He said the European teams would be looking at employing high balls to exploit Fiji’s back three defence which was exposed several times by the French during the November tour last year.
“Fiji needs to use chop tackles against their bigger Tier One opponents and stop using high tackles,” McKee said.
The high tackles were not effective with the players having more conditioned upper bodies which may stop the momentum but allowed the opponents to maintain possession, he said.
“With chop tackles the ball carrier is on the ground where we can contest for possession,” he said.
He said former Fijian 1999 World Cup campaigner Tabai Matson would be joining the Flying Fijians after his assignment as an assistant coach with the New Zealand Maoris.
Matson has been the Super 14 Crusaders assistant coach this year after having a go as head coach of the Brumbies a couple of seasons ago.
McKee said the Pacific Island teams have done the impossible in past RWCs and defeated Tier One nations and it would be no exception this time around.
The other coaches in the Flying Fijians team are Assistant Coach for Scrums Alan Muir and Assistant Coach Defense & Skills Mosese Rauluni.
McKee was the technical advisor for the Tongan side in the 2011 RWC when the islanders upset eventual finalists France 19-14 in their final pool game in Wellington.
“Tonga on their day could beat any team and had a special cohesion as the team pulled together to create the upset,” McKee said.
“The Tongan side gave it their all which brought in the x-factor that did it.”
He said the Tongan were very proud of putting on Tongan strips and had deep pride in representing their nation.
Fiji defeated Wales 38-34 in 2007 to clinch a berth in the quarterfinals in France and in their 1991 RWC debut first pool match the Samoans defeated Wales 16-13 in Cardiff.
“It won’t happen overnight but we just need to put in the hard work and try to be the best prepared side for the tournament,” McKee said.
“It’s the standards you set for yourself and what you do every single day before and during the RWC that will bring results.”