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'These boys are straight from the island': A year in the gym has bulked up the Drua

By Kim Ekin
Apisalome Vota with the ball during the round three Super Rugby Pacific match between Fiji Drua and Crusaders at Churchill Park, on March 11, 2023, in Lautoka, Fiji. (Photo by Pita Simpson/Getty Images)

The Fijian Drua became the story of round three of Super Rugby Pacific with a last-gasp 25-24 win over the defending champion Crusaders at a packed Churchill Park in Luatoka.

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The competition’s underdogs almost saw the fairytale win slip away after building a 22-12 lead only for errors to allow the Crusaders back into the game.

Tries to Sevu Reece and debutant Ioane Moananu levelled scores up before a clutch conversion by first five Fergus Burke took the lead at 24-22.

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But a spill from the kick-off gave the Drua one last chance and an 81st minute penalty from dead in-front by reserve No 10 Kemu Valetini sealed a famous win.

Former Chiefs playmaker and Drua assistant coach Glen Jackson said the win was ‘everything’ for the island with some fans likening the result to Fiji beating the All Blacks.

“That was everything,” Jackson told Newshub. “It’s captured the island.”

The Drua nearly produced two stunning upsets last season at home against the Highlanders and Chiefs, going down 27-24 and 35-34 in two equally tight contests highlighting their potential.

But in the same fixture last year between the two sides the Crusaders won by 61-3 in a lopsided thrashing that showed they still had a long way to go.

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Jackson said last year that the players hadn’t had the chance to build their bodies yet with no gym work in their conditioning routine.

Many of the players hadn’t stepped foot in the weight room before joining the squad, some coming from smaller islands that make up Fiji.

Another year of professionalism with the benefits of hitting the weights has built a stronger Drua squad.

“These boys are straight from the island with no professional rugby,” Jackson said.

“Last year, it showed, because just physically their bodies probably weren’t up to it.

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“Another year in the gym and you can see the change. Now they’ve got that win under their belt and even more belief that we deserve to be in this comp, and they can carry on putting on good performances.”

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The Crusaders came under criticism after the result for resting a number of high profile players including All Blacks Richie Mo’unga, Codie Taylor and Leicester Fainga’anuku.

The chance to build experience with some of their younger squad members didn’t work out as the Drua made Super Rugby history.

Crusaders coach Scott Roberston said there would be a new found respect for the Fijian franchise following the result.

“I think a few people will be looking at this fixture when they get it,” said Robertson. “There’ll be a new respect for the Drua.”

The Blues and Hurricanes will have to travel to Fiji later in the season to face the Drua at home with no illusions over what they will face now.

This week the Drua travel to Brisbane to take on the Reds, while the Crusaders are nursing their squad ahead of a Super Rugby Pacific final re-match with the Blues as an injury toll grows following the loss of David Havili and now Fletcher Newell.

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