French riot police were busy in Paris on Saturday. National symbols such as Arc de Triomphe and Champs-Élysées needed protecting from the fuel protestors who were making mischief.
Tear gas, pepper spray, batons and water cannon were some of the tactics employed to try and maintain order in and around some of the capital city sights. However, the gendarmerie were powerless to prevent another treasure of France being humiliatingly ransacked later that day.
The few locals who were bothered had turned up expecting to see the hosts record their 50th Test victory at a ground they first began using in 1998. Instead, the half-capacity attendance emptied out rapidly at full-time. Les Bleus had suffered their eighth defeat in 11 outings in 2018 and no disillusioned Gallic fan wanted hang about and prolong the suffering.
French depression, though, had a wonderful upside. With the stands cleared, it allowed the handful of over-joyed Fijian supporters to make their way down to the perimeter fence and raucously applaud their heroes when they eventually embarked on a lap of honour following a lengthy on-pitch huddle.
What unfolded were scenes to gladden the heart, a team and its supporters as one celebrating a result of immense significance that was a long time in coming.
‘This victory is fantastic,’ quipped skipper Dominiko Waqaniburotu amid the jubilation. It sure was.
It’s only a three-and-three-quarter hour journey from Nantes to Saint-Denis, but it has taken Fiji 11 years to make the trip and get the rugby world to again sit up and take rave notice of them.
It was Stade de la Beaujoire where the Fijians suckered punched Wales in 2007, memorably eliminating the Six Nations side from the World Cup and striking a blow for the many minnows of world rugby who lack the resources to regularly put it up to the elite.
Now, 390 kilometres up the French A11, the Pacific Islanders finally had another moment to savour in the country where the professional leagues provide so many of their stars with their livelihoods.
Eight of the starting XV would have had a short post-game journey, Top 14 outfits Clermont, Racing 92, Toulon, Bordeaux and Pau among the destinations along with second tier clubs Brive and Bayonne. No wonder Fiji took the Test field fired up to made a point.
Sure, they had victories in the interim 11 years over Six Nations duo Scotland and Italy in Suva, but it’s only when you beat a top team in their backyard in the full glare of publicity that full respect is given.
That wasn’t forthcoming in the Parisian build-up, the L’Equipe sports newspaper emphasising the need for its French players to close out their November with a success against the ‘modest Fijians’ whose brilliant individuals would be stopped behaving as a team.
Tunes changes radically following an 80-minute effort that was far from modest. ‘The Blues humiliated by Fiji’ led the sudden re-evaluations. ‘Humiliation, shame, confusion, disaster…’ was the heading of another damning French critique.
For affable Fijian coach John McKee, these magical events at Stade de France were the culmination of a 37-game body of work ongoing since he took charge in 2014.
They had been criticised for not making a better fist of their tour opener in Edinburgh, losing 54-17 to Scotland after trailing by just four points at the interval. Truth was, they had only three days’ preparation and were too rusty to cope when the pressure came on.
They were then typically cast into the tier two shadows, playing a facile fixture versus Uruguay at Hartpury, a middle of nowhere English university venue they were only told about in mid-October.
They are used to that, getting mucked around. Look at how Ireland re-routed them to Limerick in 2012 and held a fixture that wasn’t awarded full Test cap status.
Money talked. A sponsorship agreement means Ireland can only hold Test games at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium, so the decision move that match from the Irish capital to a smaller capacity was really an insult to the Fijians.
But back to the here and now. Fiji’s latest out of sight, out of mind situation worked to their advantage when they switched to Bercy in Paris.
McKee quietly hatched the plot that was to harvest the valuable win which has taken Fiji from 10th to eighth in the world rankings, demoting the French from eighth to ninth.
The white jersey flair that was on show at Stade de France was uplifting, the physicality in the tackling thunderous and the tries they fashioned were supreme. Exciting newcomer Semi Radrada got the upset rolling with a powerful burst before Josua Tuisova chipped in later with a gravity-defying dive for the line. Sweet, sweet moments and there would have been more but for a forensic TMO scrubbing out further touch downs.
France will claim they had a chance to steal the result right up until Ben Volavola’s final minute penalty, but the truth about the match was that Fiji dominated from the second referee Matthew Carley blew his whistle for the late night kick off.
They tenaciously out-thought, out-tackled and out-played the lacklustre French, a quality performance that had Ben Ryan, their Olympic gold medal sevens coach, bursting with pride on Twitter.
‘In all seriousness go and watch the replay of France v Fiji and see a Fijian team united and extolling all the values rugby holds dear,’ he tweeted with glee.
In all seriousness- go and watch the replay of tonight’s France v Fiji game and see a fijian team united and extolling all the values rugby holds dear. Vinaka ?
— Ben Ryan (@benjaminryan) November 24, 2018
His advice should be heeded by rugby followers everywhere as this result means anything is now possible at the World Cup in Japan next September. In a pool containing 2015 foes Australia and Wales, Fiji won’t lack determination. The only hope is that their preparation is as professional as it can be and that cost isn’t a deterrent.
Progress has been painfully slow in Fiji getting a fairer shake in the Test level carve up. The Drua’s participation in the Australian championship has been a positive, the performance of Frank Lomani in Paris showcasing the talent coming through at that level.
But there is pressing need for far better long-term thinking higher up the scale. A Super Rugby franchise could be the way to go if properly funded, but greater appreciation of their Test level qualities must first happen.
Only this month were Fiji and Samoa allowed take a seat at World Rugby’s Council, a delayed development that should have taken place years ago. That should be of assistance in helping the islanders state their case more vocally for transforming World Rugby’s funding model and giving them more clout in the Test window schedule.
They badly need more high calibre fixtures as only results like the wonderful win over France will keep the attention of the elite. It must happen. Otherwise stinging accusations, such as Ryan’s that Fiji’s recompense for playing is ‘not far off slave labour’, will continue to part and parcel of the Fijian rugby story.
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