When it comes to the rugby public’s perception of Fiji – cliché is not in short supply.
Many casual fans prefer lazy conclusions about Tier 2 teams, and attitudes to Fiji are no different. Perennially tagged as talented but ultimately unreliable, the stereotype is of a team that plays entertaining rugby but – other than the odd shock result – will generally succumb to the structured, pressure game of Tier 1 sides.
Those clichés began to unravel at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Fiji had the best scrum in the tournament with England, Wales and Australia all suffering at their hands, suggesting that a Fijian side with a strong set piece is not only possible but now has precedent.
More recently in the 2017 November Tests, Fiji came the closest of any southern hemisphere side to beating Ireland, with a smaller margin of defeat than South Africa and Argentina.
That side’s backline also showcased the unique physical arsenal that Fiji can call upon – boasting an average weight of 111kg among their outside backs. That’s a figure some 15kg heavier than the average international backline player.
With RWC 2019 on the horizon, Fiji have near perfect storm of attacking talent at their disposal, and given enough time together and something approaching a level footing on resources, they are a team that have the potential to go far. Australia, Wales, Georgia and Canada be warned.
1 Campese Ma’afu
The Northampton Saints prop proved in 2015 that he and tighthead partner Saulo are more than a match for Tier 1 nations as scrummagers. When so many players that can carry, Fijian props can be left to the job of scrummaging.
2 Talemaitoga Tuapati
While he plays his rugby in the French lower divisions, Tuapati is a strong hooker who has represented Stade Francais and Southland in the Mitre 10.
3 Manasa Saulo
As with Ma’afu, the London Irish prop is one of Fijian rugby ‘war horses’ and as alluded to two paragraphs ago, was part of the pack that humbled their Tier 1 rivals at the set piece in 2015.
4 Tevita Cavubati
Brother of the giant Bill Cavubati (capped 27 times for Fiji), Tevita (6’6, 120kg) made his professional breakthrough with Tasman Makos in New Zealand’s ITM Cup, having previously been with Taranaki and Welsh Pro 12 side, Ospreys, before signing for the Newcastle Falcons in 2017.
5 Leone Nakawara
RugbyPass argued that Leone Nakawara was the best player in the world in 2017, based off the fact that no other secondrow on the planet can do what he does. A huge player is every sense of the word and as dynamic a front five forward as you’ll find.
6 Peceli Yato
One of the best ball carrying loose forwards in Europe, the 6’5, 105kg Yato has been wreaking havoc for Clermont in recent seasons, and is outstanding at lock (where he has played for Fiji) or in the backrow.
7 Levani Botia
One of the hardest players on the planet to tackle one-on-one, La Rochelle moved him to openside but he played at 12 for Fiji in November. Whichever position he plays, a nightmare to defend against.
8 Viliame Mata
While the incumbent No.8 Nemani Nagusa brings a high level of athleticism to the base of Fiji’s scrum, the 6’5, 116kg Mata has been in fine form for Edinburgh and would potentially bring more size to the pack while not sacrificing on dynamism.
9 Niko Matawalu
10 Josh Matavesi
Ben Volavola has done little wrong but Matavesi’s playmaking skillset, powerful carrying and experience in the Pro14 and Premiership just can’t be ignored. A criminally underrated player who the Ospreys for one have missed desperately in their midfield this season.
11 Nemani Nadolo
What is left to be said about the 6’4, 137kg juggernaut? On his day he is unplayable, and in recent years has become the most prolific player in European rugby and is probably the most formidable attacking player on the planet.
12 Jale Vatabua
The 6’2, 112kg Vatabua is the cornerstone of Pau’s midfield, and hasn’t looked out of place with two All Blacks – Colin Slade and Conrad Smith – on either side of him. Big hits and big runs, he does it all.
13 Semi Radradra
It might be too much to hope that Semi is available for Fiji come the World Cup. Having returned to Union with Toulon he has very quickly caught up, and while he’s still learning on the job, the former NRL superstar has the potential to be devastating.
14 Josua Tuisova
Another ridiculously powerful human being, Tuisova is vying with the aforementioned Botia as the player you would least like to meet in a one-on-one. Can be prone to concentration lapses but the tank-like wing is so hard to stop that entire defensive strategies have to be organised when you play against him.
15 Jarryd Hayne
It does a huge disservice to excellent La Rochelle fullback Kini Murimurivalu, but if you will join us a little leap of imagination, the idea of Hayne playing at a rugby union World Cup is just too hard a selection to pass up. His highly dissected but ultimately successive stint in the NFL showed he can cross to a code far more alien than union. There was talk of a switch to the Waratahs after his unsuccessful Olympic Sevens bid, which it proves it might not be that fanciful an idea. The danger is of course that Hayne could become the Fijian Sam Burgess, but wouldn’t it be worth it just for the hype alone?
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