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'They could be semi-final contenders at the World Cup': Kiwi referee's bold prediction

By Sam Smith
Vinaya Habosi of the Fijian Drua breaks away from the defence during the round three Super Rugby Pacific match between the Fijian Drua and the Melbourne Rebels at Sunshine Coast Stadium (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

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A New Zealand Rugby and World Rugby referee believes Fiji loom as potential semi-final contenders at next year’s World Cup in France.

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Speaking on Sky Sport’s The Breakdown, Kiwi whistleblower Ben O’Keefe said that Fiji could make the tournament’s final four following the induction of the Fijian Drua into Super Rugby Pacific this season.

The international official outlined that he believed Fiji had the personnel to push for a place in the knockout stages of the 2019 World Cup, where they finished third in Pool D behind the Wallabies and Wales.

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However, O’Keefe noted that the inclusion of the Drua in Super Rugby Pacific gives Fiji a wider pool of talent to pick from without having to overcome the hurdles of selecting players based abroad.

“Looking internationally, they could be semi-final contenders at the World Cup,” O’Keeffe told The Breakdown.

“I think they were anyway, the way they played in 2019, before they had the Drua playing in Super Rugby, allowing that base of players to come through.

“They’ve always struggled with getting the players based overseas to compete for Fiji, because of all the windows.

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“When they are fully fit, with the experience of the players they have, that flair is going to be really hard to stop.”

O’Keefe’s comments come after the Drua recently beat the Melbourne Rebels to pick up their first-ever Super Rugby Pacific win, before pushing the Queensland Reds to the brink on Saturday.

Down by 28-9 with a quarter of the game to go, the Drua looked dead and buried before a flurry of explosive long range tries levelled proceedings at 28-all with eight minutes to go.

Although the Reds completed the 33-28 victory by scoring the final try, the Drua have proven to be a side with potential in Super Rugby Pacific after just four weeks of action.

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Ex-All Blacks wing Sir John Kirwan told The Breakdown that he thinks the Drua don’t fully believe in themselves, as reflected by their failure to beat the Reds, but implored them to continue their style of play and resist becoming more like the other sides.

“I just don’t think deep down they believe yet, but I think it’s coming,” Kirwan told the panel.

“I don’t think they have been consistent, first half was pretty average, a lot of penalties, and then they just explode. When they think, ‘Actually, we can compete here’.

“Coming up against the New Zealand sides will be another challenge for them, if they go out there and be confident. I just don’t want the Fijian Drua to change their game.

“Do not start playing like the other teams, keep doing that stuff from inside the 22, because I think they will put more teams under pressure, because they will be so unpredictable.

“You saw Fiji last year [against the All Blacks]. We brought them into Super Rugby so it can also help them internationally.”

Another ex-All Black wing, Jeff Wilson, pinpointed the introduction of the Drua into Australia’s former provincial competition as the turning point for Fijian rugby as a whole as it allowed access to higher competition for local emerging talent.

Wilson told The Breakdown that the Drua’s two seasons in the now-defunct NRC has prepared the Fijian Rugby Union for what is required to run a Super Rugby Pacific franchise.

“It all started for me once they played the NRC in Australia. Just playing there for a couple of years, all of sudden players coming from Fiji playing in a different competition, against different styles of rugby,” Wilson said.

“They’ve got a different understanding of what’s required.

“Do I see them as a contender like I said last week? Absolutely. I think they are a side good enough to finish in the top eight of this competition in their very first year.”

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