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'I'd a bit of a tear in my eye; it was very moving, a proud moment'

By Chris Jones
Fiji players climb Sigatoka sand dunes (Photo by Simon Raiwalui)

Fiji head coach Simon Raiwalui had a tear in his eye when his players linked arms and sang their pre-game song, Vanua Domoni, as they set off on one last climb up the daunting Sigatoka sand dunes to prepare for Saturday’s opening Pacific Nations Cup clash with Tonga at Churchill Park in Lautoka.

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The dunes have a special place in Fijian rugby folklore and remain a test of fitness and mental strength – the kind of challenge the coaches wanted for the players. The video of the players marching and singing up the dunes to complete their gruelling session has been seen more than a million times on social media, including 600,000 views on TikTok.

It was part of the two-week training camp set up by Raiwalui and his fellow coaches, designed to allow the players, who ply their rugby trade in Europe, Japan and with the Fijian Drua in Super Pacific Rugby, to reconnect with their islands nation, its people and their teammates.

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With Tonga and Samoa having bolstered their squads with high-profile players who have switched countries – Israel Folau and Charles Piutau are now with Tonga while Samoa have recruited Lima Sopoaga, Charlie Faumuina and Steve Luatua – this is arguably the strongest PNC ever staged with Japan, who take on Samoa in their opener, adding to the mix of teams all aiming to make an impact at the Rugby World Cup in France which kicks off in September.

Fiji are in Pool C with Australia, Wales, Georgia and Portugal and Tonga’s recent 27-21 win over Australia A has helped concentrate Fijian minds heading into their opening PNC match. Raiwalui told RugbyPass: “The boys were asked if they wanted to do one last set up the dunes and they wanted to do it linked together singing Vanua Domoni, which we sing before going out onto the pitch.

“Just watching it was very emotional from a personal point of view – not as a coach. I’d a bit of a tear in my eye seeing how connected they were. It was very moving, a proud moment and player-driven. It was very moving to see them help each other up to the top. I had to walk up the dunes and that was enough for me!

“Most Fijian rugby teams go there, and it is a unique place and while I didn’t enjoy doing it when I played, I felt better for it afterwards. It is spiritual as well. The first week of training was spent on the islands reconnecting with each other and the people.

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“We had really good team bonding accommodation staying in Taveuni because we have come from all parts of the world and the Fijian Drua and it was invaluable. We are now back using the Drua training base and it’s been a good preparation so far.

“The Tonga match is the first of five leading into the World Cup with Samoa, Japan, France and England to come and the Tonga result over Australia A showed their quality across the park with players coming back.

“The matches between the island nations are always tough and I remember the ones I played in for Fiji. We are brothers from the Pacific but when we play it is always a physical contest and we are expecting nothing else this weekend.

“It will be different from the 36-0 win over Tonga last year when a few bounces of the ball went our way and we are expecting nothing like that, and this is our only home game before the World Cup.”

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Discipline will, as always, be a key factor for Fiji as their tackling power can lead to badly timed attempts that pick up red or yellow cards along with penalties conceded under pressure. Raiwalui believes having Glen Jackson, the former Saracens No10 who became an international referee, as part of the coaching team is a major asset, and his input has been important.

Raiwalui explained: “Discipline is something we are monitoring and are very lucky to have Glen, an international referee, with us and we are very conscious of having that discipline. Glen has a very good rugby mind and was one of the best 10s I played with and his experience as a referee helps us in training.”

The Flying Fijians have managed to side-step the current financial problems afflicting the debt-ridden Fijian Rugby Union and have agreed on a bonus deal that ensures money worries will not be a factor at the World Cup. The players negotiated an increase to $500 dollars a day following the meeting.

“The conversations came up about allowances and we put the two parties into a room and they found a solution quickly and we were able to move on,” said Raiwalui. “I can only commend the FRU and the players and their association for getting that sorted and now we are concentrating on the matches in hand and the World Cup.”

Joe Tamani, one of the stars of the Super Rugby Pacific season, has recovered from injury and is now available for selection, adding what the head coach believes is a real “X-factor” to a squad already populated by game-changers.

Moulding together the foreign-based players with Drua squad members has been important for all three island nations. “It has added another dimension to all of our pathways, and it has given us another 40 players,” suggested Raiwalui. “It has been a great addition and is still in its infancy and will be important for the future.

“It is hard to say if it is the best preparation for any World Cup for Fiji, but it is very different from when I was preparing for the tournament because we didn’t have the same resources or conditions to train in. Using the Drua facility, the PNC fixtures and the England and France games are great preparation. We have a squad of 40 and we are all working towards the World Cup.”

Fiji (vs Tonga – Saturday): 15. Sireli Maqala; 14. Jiuta Wainiqolo, 13. Waisea Nayacalevu (capt), 12. Josua Tuisova, 11. Selestino Ravutaumada; 10. Caleb Muntz, 9. Frank Lomani; 1. Peni Ravai, 2. Sam Matavesi, 3. Mesake Doge, 4. Isoa Nasilasila, 5. Temo Mayanavanua, 6. Lekima Tagitagivalu, 7. Levani Botia, 8. Albert Tuisue. Reps: 16. Tevita Ikanivere, 17. Eroni Mawi, 18. Luke Tagi, 19. Te Ahiwaru Cirikidaveta, 20. Viliame Mata, 21. Peni Matawalu, 22. Ben Volavola, 23. Semi Radradra

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