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Drua CEO Mark Evans outlines plans to avoid Fijian exodus abroad

By Chris Jones
Fijian Drua huddle last week in Melbourne (Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

The Fijian Drua head into this year’s Super Rugby Pacific competition knowing they could imminently lose head coach Mick Byrne if he is chosen to replace Simon Raiwalui at the helm of the Flying Fijians.

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The potential loss of Byrne comes as a tropical depression is bringing flooding to parts of the island nation, but Drua chief executive Mark Evans is remaining commendably calm in the face of the possible winds of change.

Evans insists that if Byrne does get chosen to replace Raiwalui, it will not have an immediate impact as the Flying Fijians do not return to international action until later in the year – after the Super Rugby Pacific competition has been completed.

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Super Rugby Pacific captains speak about the upcoming season

The 2024 Super Rugby Pacific season was officially launched in Auckland earlier today as the 12 team captains came together for the first time in the history of the revamped competition.

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Super Rugby Pacific captains speak about the upcoming season

The 2024 Super Rugby Pacific season was officially launched in Auckland earlier today as the 12 team captains came together for the first time in the history of the revamped competition.

Byrne is understood to be on a two-man shortlist along with interim head coach Senirusi Seruvakula, with the Fiji Rugby Union expected to announce their chosen man shortly.

It has been a long process but Evans and the Drua franchise have been fully aware of the possible ramifications of Byrne’s departure and plans are in place to minimise any possible disruption.

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Evans is 18 months into his CEO role having signed a three-year contract with the Drua, overseeing them reach the play-offs last season where they lost to the Crusaders, the eventual champions.

With the franchise supplying the majority of the Flying Fijians Rugby World Cup squad last year, expectations for this campaign are higher than ever in the rugby-mad islands.

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The Drua start their Super Rugby campaign against the Blues in Whangarei on Saturday, then meet Moana Pasifika in Melbourne before hosting their first home game of the season against the Crusaders at Churchill Park, Lautoka. So, if Byrne is appointed Fiji’s new head coach, what happens to the Drua?

“He wouldn’t go right away because Fiji don’t play for some time,” Evans said. “I’m not involved at all, but if he gets the job he won’t suddenly walk out of the door.

“It will be a lot more managed than that and I don’t believe the situation has had any effect on our preparations at all. It has been a long process but I haven’t seen any evidence internally that it has impacted on us at all. We have been kept in the loop.

“I don’t like the hypothetical and so I am not going to comment on what may happen. Mick is a very experienced coach and I don’t think it has affected our build-up.

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“The international boys came back after the World Cup in December and the 12 development players below the 37-strong squad are also involved in training. The women joined in January and they are under the same umbrella and are managed by us, and some players and staff are on dual contracts with the Fiji Rugby Union.

“I believe things are more aligned and having the Drua men’s and women’s franchises playing on the islands and training makes a big difference and helps the national programmes.

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“We have just released our players to the Fiji U20s and it is all negotiated and it is never really an issue. There is still a long to go and people say it is more coherent.”

After reaching the play-offs last season, Evans knows rugby fans on the islands will be expecting more success. Reflecting on the strides already made on and off the pitch, he said: “Off the field – when I arrived – we weren’t doing as well as I had been led to believe. Now, we are probably a little bit ahead of where I thought we would be and on the pitch, we won two games in my first season.

“In my head, I said winning four games last season would be good and we won six. This year, in my head, I have a number and you just want to keep getting better and last year people were very kind and we had a lot of good coverage.

“But let’s not forget that we won three games with the last kick. Two of them were ours and one was Moana’s and they missed it. Sometimes you just have to be realistic but if we win two or three games we will be desperately disappointed.

“We have our internal targets but the metrics are more complicated than that. We have a deeper squad because of the good youngsters that are coming through.”

After injuring himself just before the World Cup kicked off and requiring a knee reconstruction, impressive 24-year-old Drua out-half Caleb Muntz is unlikely to play any part in this year’s competition, although there is an outside chance of the No10 appearing if the team make the knockout stages again.

However, given Muntz’s long-term contract with the Drua, there is no appetite to rush him back into action despite his hard work to try and make it back sooner than expected.

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Evans is working hard to ensure that young talent remain with the franchise rather than heading overseas and the Drua will shortly announce a new plan to hold onto the best youngsters in the islands by launching an academy that will take players from the age of 16.

That is the age that many are cherry-picked by talent scouts from France, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, with Evans adding: “When the school competitions are taking place you can barely move at the airport for talent scouts.

“With the FRU we have made some real strides with the U20s and we are going to launch a 16-18 academy in the next few months at the Drua which will attempt to reduce the number of players who leave very early in their careers.

“We won’t stop that completely but we can reduce the volume by doing a few simple things and that will be another piece (in the jigsaw). It will be designed so that a player could join the Drua at 16 and stay until say 26-27 when they may want to go abroad.

“We know some of our highest profile players will at some point go to France or Japan, but what we don’t want is them going at 17. We want them to have a good grounding here and then want them to come back in their 30s.

“Now the Drua is here I believe those players in their 30s will come back to continue playing rather than retiring, but that will take a couple of years.”

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