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Fiji's new developments that make them a world-class threat

By Sam Smith
Fiji front row forwards including Sam Matavesi ( centre ) New Zealand All Blacks v Fiji. Rugby Union test match at Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin, New Zealand. Saturday 10 July 2021. © Mandatory photo credit: Andrew Cornaga / www.photosport.nz

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Despite eventually succumbing to a 57-23 defeat at the hands of the All Blacks in Dunedin last Saturday night, Fiji’s performance nonetheless drew considerable praise from fans and pundits alike.

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Vern Cotter’s side, having not played together since their single outing in the Autumn Nations Cup last year, managed to remain firmly competitive in the contest for the better part of an hour, showing tenacity at the breakdown and effectiveness in their set piece.

Indeed, with twenty minutes left on the clock, the Flying Fijians found themselves within just eight points of the All Blacks after forcing a penalty try, which also subsequently saw David Havili sent to the bin.

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Ross Karl, James Parsons and Bryn Hall discuss all the action from around the world of rugby on the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.

The Fijian lineout in particular, proved a real weapon for the visiting side throughout, with all three of the side’s tries resulting from a variety of different strike plays choreographed off that set piece.

The influence of long-time Crusaders forwards coach, Jason Ryan, now involved in the Fijian setup under Cotter, certainly proved decisive and Ryan will surely be pleased with several aspects of the Fijian forwards’ play on Saturday evening.

Crusaders’ halfback Bryn Hall, speaking on the Aotearoa Rugby Pod this week, was among those praising the performance of Fiji’s forwards under Ryan.

“One thing that I was impressed with was the options of the Fijian lineout,” commented Hall. “The All Blacks pride themselves defensively on stunting teams’ lineout mauls and even their special plays, but on the two tries where Fiji did use the lineout drive, they actually changed the point of attack – going to the back of the lineout and [putting in] a shift drive, going to the back of the All Blacks maul.”

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Whilst Fiji’s second try came from an intricate one-two at the front of the lineout with Samuel Matavesi eventually providing the assist for Mesulame Kunavula, their other two scores came directly from strong and coordinated lineout maul drives.

Ex-Blues hooker James Parsons agreed that the structure and intelligence shown by the Fijian forwards at lineout time would have pleased Ryan and Cotter – providing them with a real positive to take into this week’s upcoming rematch with the All Blacks in Hamilton.

“Their maul, and utilising defensive pressure to shear around the back, was a great option,” said Parsons of Fiji’s efforts. “Sometimes you see teams try to shear around the front but because you’ve got the sideline there, it’s almost ‘fool’s gold’ – defensive teams want you to do that and you’ll actually end up on top of yourself out. Fiji, in going around the back towards the posts, were smart and the timing of Albert Tuisue to pop off at just the right time and win that collision to score [was excellent]. The maul was just fading away and he popped off and scored at the perfect time – it was a well orchestrated drive and definitely an area where both sides were dominant.”

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On Ryan, who has played a large part in the Crusaders’ last five consecutive Super Rugby titles, Parsons was excited by the expertise that he could bring to the Fijian side – a nation by no means lacking in world class talent in the pack.

“I think Jason has done his coaching credentials a massive favor,” commented Parsons. “We already have a lot of respect for him but he’s probably always had great forwards [to work with] at the Crusaders … With Fiji he’s had limited preparation time with some quality players from overseas, they’ve have had to come out of MIQ, so to put the performance that they did together was pretty amazing. That comes down to good systems, good coaching and good preparation, as well as good professional players.”

The professionality and quality of Fiji’s forwards is abundantly clear, with all but one of the thirteen forwards in the matchday 23 on Saturday playing in Europe last season, at clubs such as Edinburgh, Clermont and Brive.

Parsons and Hall both identified the influence that experience in those highly competitive leagues seemed to have had on the Fijian team, with coach Vern Cotter himself a Top 14 and Challenge Cup-winning manager.

“[Their play] was so risk-free,” said Parsons. “Apart from two moments on their counter-attack, I don’t think they made an error defensively or in attack. Those two moments made them make two defensive errors which led to tries. Apart from that, they showed that Northern Hemisphere-based kick strategy, set piece and real physical breakdown presence.”

Of course, famed globally for their free-flowing and highly skillful style, Parsons and Hall also believed that the ongoing goal for Fiji would be to combine that emerging forward-based structure with classic Fijian dynamism.

“The best thing about this team is that we know about the amount of flair and talent they have when they do have the ball in hand,” said Hall. “We saw instances of it on the weekend with some of the offloads and [naturally] you’re going to get that … I think getting that set-piece is massive for them and if they can keep having those improvements, with the great coaching staff they have there I think it’s just [a matter of having] time in the saddle with that group.”

Parsons too believed that good things would eventuate if Fiji could combine the best aspects of their developing game under Cotter. “I think they’ve just got to get the balance right and not lose their natural instinct to play,” he said. “In their attack strategy they’ve got to bring out their offload game and their Fijian style. There were a couple of times where they made line breaks off inside balls and then went for a pick-and-go and Nemani Nadolo [on the wing] was screaming for it. It’s those sorts of things where you’ve just got to think ‘ball up, let’s play’.”

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Fiji's new developments that make them a world-class threat

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