The Flying Fijians preparing for the Rugby World Cup has the potential to break into the next level for the first time, earning a semi-final berth in England.
The road there is maybe the most difficult in terms of the opponents lined up against them but the coaching staff and players which assembled last month and the gelling of the team during the Pacific Nations Cup is phenomenal.
Coach John McKee has no qualms about the taking up the challenge being the most adeptly prepared for the mission but at the same time perplexed at the enormity of the task.
The no-nonsense Kiwi coach who has assembled players from the rich European leagues that would have been impossible for most coaches to accomplish; is not only aware of the complexities of the Tier One teams but has a practical eye for most challenges.
After Fiji defeated Manu Samoans 39-29 in the PNC final on Monday McKee was pleased with the progress of the team during the tournament which was played in Suva, California and Canada over three weeks.
“Very pleasing to get hard fought and exciting win over Samoa in final,” McKee said after the match.
“The team has progressed well through the tournament but we still have much work ahead to be ready for RWC.”
McKee has successfully won the PNC with the inclusion of Manu Samoa after the Samoans missed the regional tournament last year.
“Samoa are a good team and will be difficult to overcome.
“This is always the challenge in Test match rugby and is our challenge working towards RWC, getting our best performance under intense competitive pressure and for 80 minutes.”
His involvement for six seasons coaching in the Northern Hemisphere from 2000, including time at Clermont-Ferrand (France) and Connaught (Ireland) as an assistant coach is vital to tapping into the mindset of foes England and Wales during pool play in the RWC.
The Kiwi is well qualified as a coach earning his stripes as an Australian Rugby Union Level Three Coach and an NZRU-Massey University Diploma of Management (Rugby Coaching).
McKee also has keen insight into the inner workings of the Wallabies during the RWC with an Australian Strength and Conditioning Association Level One coaching In 2007 he was head coach of the Central Coast Rays, winners of the Australian Rugby Championship.
Most recently McKee has been working as a Programs Coach at the ARU HPU where his role was very much involved in developing and delivering rugby programs for 18-22 year old players in the ARU National Academy Program.
He travelled to the Junior RWC in France as an Assistant Coach for the Australian Under 20 team.
In 2008 McKee travelled as a Specialist Coach with the Pacific Islanders on their European Tour and during the 2011 RWC he was a technical advisor to the Tonga Rugby Union HPU. The same Ikale Tahi’s team that scooped a 19-14 upset win over France.
McKee believes the island teams had the potential on their day to defeat any Tier One nation and have proven it over the years.
“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.
McKee has an array of specialized players in both the forwards and backs who have been not only exposed to top level rugby but keen of making their island nation proud.
The key number 10 position which has been a quandary for the Fijians since the stepping down of Nicky Little after the 2007 RWC has been quite capably filled during this PNC tournament with Josh Matavesi and Ben Volavola taking turns.
Volavola has been great with his kicking abilities in field position, penalties and conversions and slick ball handling skills while Matavesi earned the man of the match honours in the win against the Cherry Blossoms on last week.
“Josh won man of the match on the back of a fine all round performance,” McKee said.
The centres pairing of Vereniki Goneva and alternating between Levani Botia and Gabiriele Lovobalavu on the inside has been deadly with the more time to show their pace and power thanks to the forwards beginning to win more ball in the set pieces.
“Levani was very strong in attack and defence although he did turnover some ball in contact,” McKee said of Botia game against the Cherry Blossoms.
“The combination with Goneva worked well during the match.”
Goneva who has been consistently donning the number 13 strip in all four internationals has cemented his position as the outside centre for the RWC.
The array of wingers that have proven themselves during the PNC tournament and will be a big headache for McKee during the RWC having to select from Nemani Nadolo (recovering from injury), Waisea Nayacalevu, Napolioni Nalaga, Benedito Masilevu and Asaeli Tikoirotuma.
Kini Murimurivalu has been playing well at the back will be having stiff competition from Metuisela Talebula whose incisive running will add another dimension of attack.
The halfback position has been mostly alternating between Nemia Kenatale and Henry Seniloli in the PNC matches with explosive Nikola Matawalu biding his time on the bench.
The forwards have been comfortable this PNC competing well against the more experienced Tongans and Samoans and will prove to be a force against the Top Tier teams in their pool in England.
The locks in Leone Nakarawa, Api Ratuniyarawa and Tevita Cavubati have stayed the scrums and key in winning lineouts for the team.
The front row forwards in Campese Ma’afu, Manasa Saulo, Tuapati Talemaitoga,Viliame Veikoso, Peni Ravai and Isei Colati have competed well against their bigger opponents.
Loose forwards Akapusi Qera, Dom Waqaniburotu, Malakai Ravulo, Sakiusa Matadigo, Peceli Yato and Nemia Soqeta have been consistent in scrounging for loose balls and defence from the side of the scrum.
The team has been labelled as not a fully prepared for 80 minutes losing the lead in the second half to at least two matches in their past four games but has been addressed by the coach to be tuned up right for the world showpiece in a month.
“This is a big work on area for us,” McKee said.
But at the same time the momentum of the thrust by the Fijians are sometimes reversed by circumstance which could be attributed to lack of fitness, the fitness of the opponents or questionable decisions by the referee.
“In this game (against Japan) we very nearly scored straight after halftime (called back for forward pass),” said McKee.
“If we made that score I don’t think Japan would have got near us.
“We then gave away a number of penalties which allowed Japan back into the game.”
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. Ludeke won back to back Super Rugby titles in 2007-8.
He would bring a lot of cohesion in the forwards lineouts and restarts. McKee said
Ludeke would also bring a lot of South African aggression and tactics to counter the European teams with the
defence of the rolling mauls and attacking mauls from lineouts.
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.
The other coaching staff of former Flying Fijians Mosese Rauluni, Tabai Matson and Kiwi Alan Muir have the credentials to take this team to new horizons.