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FEATURE Why Fiji are poised to strike at the new Nations Championship

Why Fiji are poised to strike at the new Nations Championship
8 months ago

There is a memorable scene in the Baseball movie Moneyball, where the General Manager of the Oakland Athletics Baseball franchise, Billy Beane, is discussing the merits of Draft prospects with his scouts. Names are touted in Baseball-speak, then discarded in an uncomfortable silence, or with a derisive raising of the eyebrows. Finally, the tension becomes too much, and Beane (played by Brad Pitt) makes his point:

“You guys are just talking. Talking, talking, talking – la-di-dah-di-dah – like this is business as usual.

“It’s not…

“The problem we are trying to solve is that there are rich teams, and there are poor teams, then there is fifty feet of crap, and then there’s us. It’s an unfair game.”

The problem of rich and poor, the haves and the have-nots, extends to rugby’s sister sport. If you look at the list of the Rugby League World Cup winners, there are only two nations who can realistically hoist the trophy, and they are Australia and New Zealand. Even then, the Kangaroos have won nine of the last 10 competitions since 1975, so maybe that list should be trimmed down to one.

Latrell Mitchell of Australia celebrates with teammates Nathan Cleary and Josh Addo-Carr after scoring their team’s sixth try during the Rugby League World Cup Final match between Australia and Samoa at Old Trafford on November 19, 2022 in Manchester, England. (Photo by George Wood/Getty Images)

Great Britain and Ireland (‘the Lions’) have been broken up into four separate parts, and the NRL has become a recruitment platform to build fresh rugby beach-heads – it would be a stretch to call them bona fide rugby ‘countries’ – like Lebanon from very thin air indeed. There is Australia and New Zealand, then there is fifty feet of crap down to everyone else.

It may not be quite as bad in union, but there is still plenty of compostable material in between the Six Nations and Rugby Championship nations and the rest. Even within those ten nations, there was clear daylight between the ‘super four’ of South Africa, New Zealand, France and Ireland and everyone else at the 2023 World Cup. After that quartet, you were looking at Billy Beane’s ever-deepening layer of sediment.

The proud rugby traditions in South Africa and New Zealand, stretching back over the distant horizon of amateurism are too big to fail. But if you believe it is an accident that Springbok head coach Jacques Nienaber was the defence guru at Munster before taking up the national baton after 2019, and or that it is pure chance he will go back to Leinster as senior coach after the conclusion of the current competition, think again. It is no coincidence.

Ireland enjoys an extremely cohesive web of national/provincial co-operation, while France has the healthiest professional club system anywhere in the world, stretching the roots of its paid ranks all the way down three tiers. But the synergy of the game below Test level ends with those four.

Wales and Australia are experiencing the butt-end of entropy in their regional franchises, Argentina lost its foothold in Super Rugby, Scotland and Italy only have two regions or clubs to pick from, Georgia cannot gain access to the Six Nations. Even the sole Northern Hemisphere winner of the World Cup, mighty England, gropes towards alignment of club and country in the dark, while its professional model is shedding clubs like chaff.

The proud rugby traditions in South Africa and New Zealand, stretching back over the distant horizon of amateurism are too big to fail.

It is impossible to see how the World Cup can become more competitive until there is a real chance of a global season becoming reality, and everyone has a seat at the table. The old hierarchies in rugby are long overdue for some serious ‘levelling-up’, and the new proposals for a biennial Nations’ Cup may be just the ticket.

World Rugby has approved an international competition which will contain all ten nations in the Rugby Championship and the Six Nations, plus two others (likely to be Japan and Fiji) by invitation from Sanzaar. The tournament is due to be played in the traditional July and November touring windows from 2026 onwards, and it will have a second tier of 12 countries. From 2030 onwards, there will be promotion and relegation between the two divisions, connecting the haves with the have-nots.

As the chief executive of World Rugby Alan Gilpin commented crisply, “Is it perfect? Probably not. Is it a hell of a lot better than the current situation? Absolutely.” Gilpin went on to forecast that the alternate years (when the Nations Cup was not being played) would witness a 50 per cent growth of Tests between first and second-tier nations, while the expansion of the Pacific Nations tournament from four to six teams is expected to guarantee a minimum of three additional matches per annum, in addition to the new international competition and cross-over fixtures.

Samoa head coach Seilala Mapusua reacted positively:

“I am excited at the potential of the expanded Pacific Nations Cup as it provides important, high-quality fixture certainty to grow and develop Manu Samoa. This means we will have more Test matches and more time together as a team which we have lacked in the past. This new environment will enable us to keep growing and developing as we look towards Rugby World Cup 2027 in Australia.”

Simon Raiwalui
Fiji head coach Simon Raiwalui makes a point during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between Fiji and Portugal at Stadium de Toulouse on October 08, 2023 in Toulouse, France. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

If that is a promising start, it is a development that has already been buttressed by another recent shift. A club/provincial world cup could become a reality as early as 2028. The new availability in the June/July window in a Nations Cup ‘off’ year has created an opportunity for a competition featuring the top sides from both hemispheres. Imagine Leinster playing the Crusaders, or Toulouse taking on the Brumbies.

It is a mouth-watering prospect, as chairman of European Professional Club Rugby Dominic McKay explained, “There is a real warmth to develop a Club World Cup. A number of clubs from France and the U.K. were pushing us quite hard…

“We want to do something which is meaningful and has a pattern of regularity. We are looking at doing something, if we can, potentially in 2028 and potentially in 2032.

“There is a genuine warmth from South Africa, from Australia and from New Zealand, a real appetite to make it happen and that is great.”

Back to Test rugby, of special interest will be the proposal to adopt the promotion/relegation model between the two divisions of 12 in the Nations Cup. That offers a concrete incentive for the tier-two countries to develop, and target promotion to what Billy Beane would call the ‘major leagues’.

There is a real warmth to develop a Club World Cup. A number of clubs from France and the U.K. were pushing us quite hard.

Dominic McKay, chairman of EPCR

The model for such aspirants currently has to be Fiji. With a solid development base in Super Rugby Pacific at the Fijian Drua, and the star-sprinkled addition of European-based IP via the likes of La Rochelle’s 12/7 ‘tweener’ Levani Botia, old Bristolian Semi Radradra and Toulon skipper Waisea Nayacelavu, Fiji were able to build a rock-like set-piece and play a mature, possession-based power game off the back of it that caused all their top-tier opponents plenty of headaches and uncomfortable moments.

During the World Cup, only New Zealand carried more ball, or enjoyed more minutes of active possession-time than the Flying Fijians. For the first time in their history, the Islanders had statistically the best scrum in the competition, winning 97 per cent of their own feed and with a penalty differential (+5) which compared favourably with traditional powerhouses like South Africa and France. Fiji were also holy terrors at the defensive breakdown, permitting a niggardly average ruck-speed  of over four seconds to their opponents, behind only the eventual world champions.

If Simon Raiwalui had been able to deploy the navigational skills of his injured No 10 Caleb Muntz, there is every chance Fiji would have progressed to the semi-finals stage for the first time in their colourful rugby history, and their advance to the highest echelons of the game would unquestionably have enriched the fabric of rugby.

Why? Because the Flying Fijians have a unique point-of-difference few other rugby-playing countries can rival. Most of their backs are as powerful, and very nearly as big as their forwards. That makes them exceptionally good at undertaking many of the tasks which are historically the preserve of the big boppers up front.

The Fijian captain Waisea Nayacelavu is six-feet-five-inches tall and tips the scales at over 105 kilos, which means he is of comparable physical proportions to number eight forward Viliame ‘Bill’ Mata. Because Nayacalevu plays at outside centre, his size and power can create severe defensive problems for outmatched opposition backs, especially in situations where they need to tackle high or stop the offload:

 

 

In both cases the height of the ball is well above the level of the attempted tackles, and that gives Nayacelavu an inbuilt advantage that is hard to replicate for much smaller men: the position of the ball denies the rip-move for the defender and keeps the ball available naturally for the attacking support.

In the quarter-final against England, Semi Radradra repaid the favour:

 

Semi is ‘only’ six-feet-two-inches but the effect is still the same – power in contact enabling the ball-carrier to keep the ball above the level of the tackle and move the point of attack in the collision.

On defence, the Flying Fijians had at least four backs who are probably well-capable of making a dent in the forward pack. Nayacelavu and wingman Vinaya Habosi could make a profitable living in the back-row, it is not too much of a stretch to picture massive 113-kilo inside centre Josua Tuisova playing hooker, while Levani Botia has already started international rugby matches at both No 7 and No 12.

Players with that size and power tend to add extraordinary value at the defensive breakdown:

 

 

In the first clip, Botia and Tuisova quickly overload the cleanout above Australian number 8 Rob Valetini in the pool game between Fiji and the Wallabies, in the second Nayacalevu delivers a big shot on Joe Marchant and the combination of Manu Tuilagi, Elliot Daly and Tom Curry is not enough to remove a wing who thinks he is a an openside fetcher (Habosi), complete with headband and arm-guard.

Put it all together, and you get some damaging physical mismatches in all aspects of back-play:

 

As soon as Marcus Smith is taken to ground in the tackle, there are two backs converging from either side – Jonny May and Tuilagi for England, Nayacelavu and Tuisova for Fiji. In the event it isn’t even a fair fight, as the Englishmen are swept away on a tide of Fijian power at the tackle. If it had been a boxing contest, the referee would have stopped it to prevent further punishment.

At long last, it appears that the pieces of the global season puzzle are starting to come together. The move towards a biennial Nations Cup is a step in the right direction. Two tiers of 24 nations, with promotion and relegation on the menu within another six years, is the same number of teams scheduled to participate at the 2027 World Cup in Australia.

If that shift can be accompanied and reinforced by a World Club Championship which also brings the two hemispheres together in the June/July window, World Rugby may just be in business. The continued development of the Flying Fijians will be an important barometer of success. It is time for all the talking to stop, for the ‘fifty feet of crap’ which separates the haves from the have-nots to be eroded, and the trajectory of an unfair game to be reversed.

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Comments

17 Comments
J
Jon 250 days ago

Love that this new article is on trend with your ‘what makes Ireland' great’ article from earlier in the year Nick! Don’t get the SA and Ireland relationship angle though.

If I’m honest I was disappointed in Fiji at this tournament. I feel they had the firepower to do much more, go much further. They got caught up in some of the success the skill set from their NH players brought down and it bogged them down a bit I guess. But that is were this whole thing comes around again. This is what the smaller nations have been saying “not enough time in the saddle, often enough”, they get one chance every 4 years to get it right, and would now otherwise have needed to look to the next World Cup to give it another go.

Now Fiji will get first dibs at two 5/6 week international windows. It’s not going to be knock out, so unfortunately they won’t make the final if they suffer losses trying to find the right game plan, but I think we’ll get a better glimpse of their potential.

Unfortunately for them they won’t be able to back that up in two years time, as for this invitational period, SANZAAR have already said they will be sharing it around.

M
Mzilikazi 251 days ago

Interesting times ahead, and it will be so good for the game worldwide any rugby playing nation will have a pathway to the higher echelons. In my view, promotion and relegation is essential for the two divisions of the Nations Cup . No one can sit back within a secure “kraal”.

Fiji are now a lot more than just a Sevens nation. The potential this small Pacific island nation has is just through the roof.

J
JD Kiwi 252 days ago

I'm not sure whether you explicitly made the link but Fiji are the moneyball nation aren't they? So many fast, powerful, skilful athletes.

I'm not sure whether you're familiar with experiments at age group level where they're trialling a base of the sternum tackle law. Apparently they're used to it now and it's helping to speed up the game. That could really help Fiji if it gets adopted at all levels.

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