‘The way it should be’: How Fijian Rugby has changed over 16 years
16 years is a long time. Fiji won over the hearts of rugby fans during an inspired run to the quarterfinals at the 2007 Rugby World Cup, with the Pacific Islanders beating Wales to progress to the knockout rounds.
With captain Mosese Rauluni leading the Flying Fijians out into rugby battle, the underdogs set their sights on a decisive final-round pool clash with Wales in Nantes before the tournament began. It came down to a try at the death but Fiji emerged victorious.
Fiji were the team that everyone loved to love, but their incredible campaign wouldn’t go any further. The Flying Fijians were beaten by eventual champions South Africa 37-20 in Marseille.
In the years since, Fiji have shown glimpses of promise on the back of some exciting, flamboyant and unmissable running rugby. But a return to the quarterfinals has continued to elude them.
Coming up against Wales in the 2011, 2015, 2019 and 2023 World Cups, as well as the Wallabies in the last three events, the Flying Fijians failed to move beyond the pool stage before this year’s tournament.
Fiji fell agonisingly short of glory against a resurgent Welsh outfit in Bordeaux but took control of their own destiny with their first win over Australia in almost 70 years. Fiji also snuck by Georgia, and only needed a losing bonus point in their final Test to move on.
But former captain Mosese Rauluni feared the worst as Fiji struggled against a valiant Portugal outfit last weekend. Rauluni couldn’t help but think “that Australia might get through” as the Pacific Islanders were locked in a tense battle.
Rugby fans in Fiji, here in France and around the world were glued to their TV screens as a seemingly unthinkable pool stage exit beckoned. Portugal is a team made up of amateurs after all.
Wing Rodrigo Marta scored late in the piece to give Portugal a slender 24-23 lead. They were a minute away from their first World Cup win, and another converted try would condemn Fiji to an early exit.
But the Pacific Islanders held on. Portugal celebrated their historic achievement and Fiji were off to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2007. 16 years is a long time.
“Massive improvements, massive. This team and the 2015 team and the 2019 team are a lot more stable teams that had a lot more depth,” Rauluni told RugbyPass.
“In 2007 we had I think it was 30 per cent or 40 per cent were overseas players and the rest were locals so those locals they were only playing in a club comp back in Fiji. Our depth was nowhere near as strong as it is now.
“With the Drua team going into the Super competition and playing regular tough matches. They’re a lot better. It’s a lot better team, our scrum’s a lot better. When I was playing I’d just hope for the best when I fed the scrum.
“The lucky thing about 07 is we played Japan first and then we played Canada and then we played Australia and then we played Wales. We got better as the competition went on but these guys… they had 12 days rest between one game.
“When we ended up playing against Wales we were pretty on song which was really good and then we improved again against South Africa.
“The 2015 World Cup team, I coached at that one, I was part of the coaching team, they were really competitive in all games. Wales, Australia, and England, they weren’t blowout scores or anything.
“In 2019 we thought we had a team to go through to the quarterfinals and they blew it against Uruguay. I thought the Portugal game was going to be the same as the Uruguay game, we let our foot off the throat and knock ourselves out of the quarters again.
“They could’ve lost against Georgia too, that was tough to watch, Georgia played really well. I know Georgia and Portugal would’ve looked at Fiji as the game to win.
“With the depth now I think this is a lot better team, a more structured team and set-piece-wise we’re pretty good. Sometimes the lineouts are a bit off but our scrum’s improved out of sight since 07 and that’s the way it should be.
“All they need… more Tests to get even more cohesion so whether they play in a bigger Pacific Nations comp or play in The Rugby Championship, just playing more Tests would be a big help.”
When Fiji beat Australia for the first time since 1954, Rauluni had a thought of ambition: “The expectations were, yes, definitely to make the quarterfinals and with the team that they have and after beating Australia I thought, ‘Mate, we can go through to the semi.’ We’re still hoping for that.”
Fiji have never made the final four at a Rugby World Cup, but the chance to create history beckons for a team that will be desperate to make amends after a couple of underwhelming performances.
Standing in their way of a semi-final berth is Steve Borthwick’s England – the same team that Fiji beat in their final warm-up Test before the tournament.
Playing at Twickenham, Fiji put on a show as they ran away with a somewhat comfortable 30-22 win over August 26. Rauluni believes “it’s very possible” that Fiji get the better of the English again on Sunday.
“They dropped their standards when we played the tier two nations but when we England they’ll have the confidence from a month or two ago when they played England,” Rauluni added.
“England haven’t really changed the way they play. I think they’re a better team England though, they looked pretty shabby going into this World Cup but they’ve stuck to their best game and it’s working.
“Nearly came undone against Samoa because Samoa plays that Fijian style of rugby but more combative. I think the Fijians should go into this game confident and I definitely know that they’ll lift because it’s a tier-one nation and they’ve got the confidence after beating them last time.
“It’s going to be a lot tougher than when they played in Twickenham but I think it’s going to be a good game. If they try and stop England’s kicking game and put pressure on them it’ll work I think.”
But Fiji have already taken a “massive step forward” on rugby’s biggest stage. There are even talks of them potentially joining The Rugby Championship, with coach Simon Raiwalui confirming that there have been discussions behind the scenes.
Fiji made a statement by beating England at their house a couple of months ago and continued to create history during a thrilling contest with Wales and that win over Australia.
They’re in the quarterfinals, and that’s something to celebrate.
“I think a lot of people, with the team that we’ve got, were expecting us to get in the quarterfinals. That was my expectation with the team that we’ve got,” Rauluni continued.
“We always have good games against Wales and I thought they’d knock off Wales and maybe lose to Australia but it went the opposite way around.
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“Wales were in the same position as Australia not long ago; changing coach, there are still issues back in Wales with the clubs.
“Wales actually played really well against Fiji. Everyone thought they wouldn’t be able to compete with how big the boys were and they defended really well, played smart, and just really gave it to Fiji.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence that the boys will lift against England.
“I know England will play a lot different to what they did against us a couple of months ago. Their game style hasn’t changed, it’s a lot of kicking… if they kick poorly to this Fijian side they’ll attack from anywhere and that could be their danger.”