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Fiji tipped as World Cup 'dark horses' by ex-internationals after big win over Tonga

By Alex McLeod
Fijian players sing national anthem during the World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup match between Tonga and Fiji at the HFC Bank stadium on July 2, 2022. (Photo by Leon LORD / AFP) (Photo by LEON LORD/AFP via Getty Images)

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A pair of former internationals have tipped Fiji to be the “dark horses” of next year’s World Cup following their emphatic Pacific Nations Cup win over Tonga last weekend.

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Fiji held the new-look Tonga side – equipped with headline debutants such as Israel Folau, Malakai Fekitoa and Charles Piutau – scoreless as they romped to a 36-0 victory at ANZ National Stadium in Suva on Saturday.

The result lifts the Flying Fijians to the top of the Pacific Nations Cup table heading into their second round match against Australia A in Lautoka this weekend.

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All Blacks speak to media following win over Ireland
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However, based on the evidence of their performance four days ago, Fiji could be set for even greater things come the 2023 World Cup in France.

That’s according to former All Blacks hooker James Parsons, who told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod that Fiji could prove to be the surprise package of next year’s tournament.

Parsons cited their ability to dominate collisions while playing an expansive and attacking brand of rugby bodes well for Fiji’s chances of reaching the World Cup knockout stages for the third time in their history.

“I think they could be a dark horse for 2023,” Parsons, who played two tests for the All Blacks between 2014 and 2016, told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.

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“Their physicality, their ability to win their own ball, get across the gain line and their offload game, as expected, but the way they’re winning collisions and allowing them to keep that ball alive, it was a great watch.

“[Against] a Tongan team that probably came with a lot of expectation, they did the business. It’s not just the tries, to be fair. They held them out to zero and there was a lot of attacking prowess there.”

That sentiment was echoed by former Maori All Blacks halfback Bryn Hall, who agreed that Fiji could become a force to be reckoned with at the World Cup.

Hall, a six-time Super Rugby champion with the Crusaders who will soon join the Shizuoka Blue Revs in Japan, highlighted the involvement of the Fijian Drua in Super Rugby Pacific as a key factor behind Fiji’s recent success.

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Following their debut season in Super Rugby Pacific, the Drua have provided the Fijian national side with 15 of their 34 players.

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Hall told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod that Fiji are beginning to reap the rewards of the significant cohesion that comes with nearly half of Vern Cotter’s squad being comprised of Drua players.

“It’s cohesion, it’s being able to understand the guy that’s next to you and being able to play at a high intensity,” Hall, who made eight appearances for the Maori All Blacks between 2017 and 2021, said.

“Playing against the Australians and the New Zealand teams on a week-by-week basis, it’s going to make your game a lot better.”

Hall added that the influence of Fiji assistant coach Jason Ryan – formerly a coach of Hall’s at the Crusaders – on the team’s forward pack is paying dividends for the Pacific Island nation.

“Don’t underestimate Jason Ryan and his involvement in that group as well,” Hall said before referencing last year’s first test between the All Blacks and Fiji as an example of the threat that the latter side poses.

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“Very early on in their set piece, getting to that transition zone and then playing on top of teams with physicality from that set up some pretty early points for them.

“I think they’re a dark horse if they can continue to keep working on that set piece and getting that game management right.

“If you see the scenes on the weekend with them being able to offload the ball, play on top of teams – the All Blacks felt that last year playing them at Forsyth Barr [Stadium] in Dunedin last year, how hard it is to stop.”

Fiji, currently placed 11th on the World Rugby rankings, have been grouped in Pool C alongside the Wallabies, Wales, Georgia and the Final Qualifier Winner at next year’s World Cup.

The Final Qualifier Winner – which will be any one of Tonga, the USA, Namibia, Portugal, Chile, South Korea, Hong Kong, Zimbabwe, Kenya or Algeria – will be determined by a four-team round-robin tournament in November.

Fiji have previously qualified for the World Cup quarter-finals on two occasions, reaching the final eight at the 1987 event co-hosted by New Zealand and Australia, before replicating that feat in France in 2007.

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