Eroni Mawi has had to be patient, but the Fijian loosehead finally has his opportunity to make an impact in top tier club rugby, following his signing by Saracens this week.
The 23-year-old has been signed as injury cover for Ralph Adams-Hale and will now likely have the remainder of the 2019/20 Gallagher Premiership season to leave his mark upon both Saracens and the competition, as he bids to secure a long-term contract in one of the major European leagues.
Mawi has represented Fiji at the senior level with distinction since making his debut against Samoa in 2018, a year after he captained the nation’s U20 side. He has been a part of the evolution of the Fijian set-piece of late, something which has resulted in the Pacific Island side’s ability to hold its own in the tight in a way which historically they have not always been able to do.
He also featured for the Fiji Warriors, Fiji’s designated capture side, and more recently impressed with the Fiji Latui select side that took part in the Global Rapid Rugby showcase season. He was also a key part of the Fiji Drua side that won Australia’s National Rugby Championship in 2018.
At every one of these levels, Mawi has shown himself to be hard-working, technically refined and a more than competent leader, although opportunity to display that in one of the premier club competitions has until now eluded him.
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Those chances can be few and far between for young Fijian players who are regularly denied shots in Super Rugby unless they are either eligible for New Zealand or Australia, or commit to qualifying on residency and not answering the call should the Fijian senior team want to select them. France is a much harder nut to crack now that the FFR have implemented their JIFF restrictions, Ireland are selective in their recruitment of overseas players and the UK has a number of visa challenges to be hurdled before a player can take up full-time employment in the country.
Nevertheless, the fact a French club did not give him a shot, or an English, Welsh or Scottish side didn’t bring him in when he’d won enough caps to qualify for a visa – November 2018 – is still surprising. Young props who can anchor the scrum, are strong ball-carriers and don’t carry the financial premium of being EQP or JIFF in their respective leagues, are usually worth their weight in gold – even if they don’t cost it.
A post-Rugby World Cup move to Northampton Saints had looked to be on the cards, before injuries and retirements struck at hooker for the East Midlands club and they switched targets to Mawi’s international teammate, Sam Matavesi, who took up an additional non-EQP spot at the club. Whilst that would have understandably been frustrating for Mawi, especially with Saints targeting silverware domestically this season, the gifted loosehead has landed on his feet in St Albans.
There are plenty who would argue that to be joining Saracens at the current time is more of a curse than a blessing, but not many players will have the hunger to impress and prove their worth that Mawi will. He comes to the club at a time of great adversity and with Adams-Hale sidelined and Mako Vunipola on England duty, the chance to feature could come sooner rather than later.
This is the audition that his nationality and/or the eligibility rules of certain leagues has thus far prevented him from having. Now he gets to have it in a side that has lost none of its potency on the pitch, despite the self-inflicted problems off of it that they are having to deal with. He gets to learn from Vunipola, Ian Peel and Alex Sanderson, as he tests himself in training against Rugby World Cup-winning tighthead Vincent Koch. Prosper there and he will have his pick of contracts come the summer.
If he does enough to impress Mark McCall and Nick Kennedy at Saracens, staying at the Greene King IPA Championship-bound club wouldn’t be the worst move. Mawi could cement himself as one of the foundation pieces of the club’s upcoming rebuild and England certainly won’t be discarding Vunipola any time soon, either, so a route to playing time would be in his own hands. Furthermore, the Championship has been the making of many a talented but raw prop over the years and there’s no reason why his development couldn’t be accelerated by a stint in the competition.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 14, 2020
Elsewhere, Saints’ interest could be re-kindled with a strong showing in the second half of the season, Newcastle Falcons have previously had success with a number of Fijian players and Worcester Warriors have a depth chart which would be assailable for Mawi. French clubs will be looking, too, with their attentions particularly caught by Saracens’ expected offload of players and the scything cuts being made by the RFU on the Championship clubs.
Whatever does happen to Mawi at the end of his medical joker stint at Saracens, it’s just enjoyable to see him getting an opportunity. The 14-times capped prop is an example of the new generation of Fijian rugby player where the set-piece is valued and well coached, money has been invested into the age-grade pathway and professional careers have been able to be started on-island for players who have been unable to secure moves abroad.
Mawi is not your mercurial ball-handling tight five forward, he is a loosehead built in a mould to thrive in Europe within the right environment. For all their misdemeanours, few would argue that Saracens don’t provide that right sort of environment for players and their current struggles can be the platform from which Mawi pushes forward his budding career.
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