It is easy to write romantically about Fijian rugby; these mysterious yet smiling gods of the running game.
They are richly endowed with talent, and their games have all the excitement of the great underdog battles, with metaphors of the David versus Goliath not uncommon. Their small islands and rugby teams are draped in culture and tradition and are as ethereal in song as they are with ball in hand alike.
Their first game against the host nation is a great example of this story, told at first glance through the comparison of population size, playing numbers and wealth.
Population: 53 million
Adult Male Rugby Players: 166,762
Approx. Match payments: £15,000 per Test (50,100 FJD)
Adult Male Rugby Players: 8,000
Approx. Match payments: $0
One Test for England is the equivalent of more than ten times the average monthly salary in Fiji ($4,590 FJD).
Yet when it comes to rugby, these numbers seem to hold little sway as the passion and excitement of the on-field war allows the Fijian Warriors to whittle away the difference with every bone crunching tackle, side step and flick pass.
So in assessing Fiji’s chance in the 2015 World Cup, do the numbers matter?
While I am very careful not to over analyse a team which is much more art than science, there are some stats which would lend themselves to suggesting just how close they may come to the quarter-finals and the upsets they are so desperately looking for.
Four players are returning for their third World Cup, three of these in the forwards (Sunia Koto – vc, Akapusi Qera – c, Netani Talei and Gabrielle Lovobalavu – both previous vice captains and captains).
Another 11 players are attending their second World Cup, with four more having been part of the Rugby World Cup preparations in 2011.
Verinki Goneva was the top try scorer in the 2014 Aviva Premiership and MVP for the tournament.
Metuisela Talebula has been among the top five try scores in France for the last two years, while Nemani Nadolo has scored 15 tries in 19 appearances for Fiji, and grabbed 10 meat pies in the Super Rugby for the Crusaders.
When compared to the Wallabies’ recent form, scarily the big man also kicked nine from 9 against Canada this week.
While the matches against England and Australia will be a huge challenge for the island nation, recent history shows that apart from a 66 – 0 drubbing in 2011, previous results against Wales are remarkably close.
In the past ten years, Fiji’s results against Wales are as follows;
November 2005: Wales 11 – Fiji 10
Sept 2007 Rugby World Cup: Fiji 38 – Wales 34
November 2010: Wales 16 – Fiji 16
October 2011 Rugby World Cup: Wales 66 – Fiji 0
November 2014: Wales 17 – Fiji 13
So apart from that ill-fated evening in Hamilton, which I must wear as part of the coaching staff at the time, only 11 points has separated Wales and Fiji in four games, all of which have been played in the Northern Hemisphere.
Given the recent injuries Wales have encountered, you can bet your last grass skirt that Fiji will back themselves to upset this proud rugby nation, especially as they have a ten-day turn around between the Wallabies and the Dragons.
Assuming that Uruguay may be in for a long tournament, this means Fiji has two opportunities to secure one of their greatest upsets and set up a chance of a quarter final chance against Wales.
With only a four-day turnaround between the English game and Australia, you would think that the host nation may be a little more worried than us, but with 10 days to recover it is not inconceivable that Fiji will line up to tackle both.
What can be guaranteed is that if they do go down to England, they will throw everything they have at the Wallabies to keep their dreams alive.
So as number go, there are a few key ones in coming weeks;
15 Players – returning for their second World Cup
11 points – between Wales and Fiji in four games
10 days – between Australia and Wales
4 days – between England and Australia
F 1 J 1 – for a team that have never counted on the numbers, there may just be a few that are pointing in their favour this time round.
Fiji’s 31-man Rugby World Cup squad
Props: Lee Roy Atalifo (Suva), Isei Colati (Nevers), Campese Ma’afu (Pays D’Aix), Peni Ravai (Nadroga), Manasa Saulo (Timisoara).
Hookers: Sunia Koto (Narbonne), Tuapati Talemaitoga (Pays D’Aix), Viliame Veikoso (Doncaster).
Locks: Tevita Cavubati (Ospreys), Leone Nakarawa (Glasgow Warriors), Api Ratuniyarawa (Agen), Nemia Soqeta (Biarritz).
Back-rowers: Sakiusa Masi Matadigo (Lyon), Akapusi Qera (Montpellier, capt), Malakai Ravulo (Farul Constanta), Netani Talei (Harlequins), Dom Waqaniburotu (Brive), Peceli Yato (Clermont).
Scrum-halves: Nemia Kenatale (Farul Constanta), Nikola Matawalu (Bath), Henry Seniloli (Treviso).
Fly-halves: Josh Matavesi (Ospreys), Ben Volavola (Waratahs).
Centres: Levani Botia (La Rochelle), Vereniki Goneva (Leicester Tigers), Gabiriele Lovobalavu (Bayonne).
Wings: Nemani Nadolo (Crusaders), Waisea Nayacalevu (Stade Français), Asaeli Tikoirotuma (London Irish).
Fullbacks: Kini Murimurivalu (La Rochelle), Metuisela Talebula (Bordeaux).
- Greg Mumm, Roar