I was wearing a Wallaby shirt the other day and someone commented; are you a Wallaby fan? To which I replied of course.
The navy blue quality polo shirt with Australian logos and insignia was a gift to me from my younger sister who lives in Melbourne and I enjoy wearing it.
Of course I am a Wallaby fan BUT; Fiji is my team for this Rugby World Cup kicking off Friday night at the Ajinomoto Stadium in Tokyo between the hosts; the Brave Blossoms and Russia.
As far as World Rugby rankings go; Fiji is currently ranked ninth in the world and has an outside chance to go all the way and play in the final.
Of course the Wallabies; ranked sixth, stand in the way which Fiji meets first up at the Sapporo Dome on Saturday; and that match pretty much determines Fiji’s fate in the championship.
To go back a few decades; Fiji was my team during the 60s and 70s following them on live telecast via FBC radio whether it was a New Zealand; Australian or British Isles tour; my dad and most of the family would gather around to listen to the Fijians play.
Sometimes it would be a near loss; or a draw and most of times which predetermined a wonderful day was a win for the Fijians; sometimes intently followed on radio in the wee hours of the morning.
The game has progressed phenomenally especially after the advent of professionalism after the 1995 RWC in South Africa.
Fiji didn’t take part in the tournament where former Rainbow nation President Nelson Mandela’s charisma propelled the Springboks to their maiden RWC with a win over New Zealand with their giant the late Jonah Lomu in the final.
Fiji was in the doldrums waking up in stupor during the 1995 championship and has been at a loss in the XVs game ever since.
Gradually, in spite of the speed of the game with totally alien championships and new global ventures combining the tier one nations with television audiences and mega advertising revenues; Fiji are beginning to adapt to the changes and waking up to the advances.
Coach John McKee has bided his time since taking over in 2014; with meagre resources to work with between Fiji’s amateur provincial competition; and seeking the other Fijians players in Super Rugby franchises, European premier club competitions to woo them into the Flying Fijians squad.
Several camps have been held in France where most of his human resources lie; for the November window tours matching the Fijians with European teams and; and camps in Fiji with the regular Pacific Nations Cup in July-August.
In spite of the widespread geographical challenges of Fiji’s players’ locations; the lack of being together compared to Tier One nations where their domestic competition and regular international setups allow them regular playing time together, Fiji’s hopes have never dimmed.
McKee knows the logistical and financial challenges and has taken it all in stride with the belief that one day it will pay dividends in putting Fiji on the top of the rugby hierarchy.
The diligent guiding hand of McKee and the coaching staff is beginning to bear fruit with wins over the Maori All Blacks in July and France last November in Paris. There were close results too against Ireland and Scotland in their home grounds in the last couple of years.
This year, in spite of the challenges; Fiji has been able to stay together playing some quality matches since July playing a two-match series against the New Zealand Maoris; Japan, Canada, Samoa and Tonga.
The outcome of those matches with mixed results saw Fiji score four wins and two losses; but the invaluable time spent together was the key in building up for the Japanese showcase.
With confidence and quiet self-belief, Fiji has the biggest stage with the global audiences watching to make the biggest statement that it is the love of the sport, the heart and willingness to overcome all the obstacles that matter.
My prediction is that the Flying Fijians will defeat the Wallabies by a 20 points margin and will set the stage for a highly competitive 2019 RWC.
Wallaby fan? Yes, because when Fiji starts scoring those tries, the Aussies need all the help they can get.