Sky’s the Limit for Flying Fijians
While not one of the favourites to win the Rugby World Cup, Fiji is sure to be a team everyone will be watching. They are coming into the tournament after winning their sixth Pacific Nations Cup, beating Samoa, Tonga, and Japan, with a defeat against France being their only loss in 2023. Even in that match they pushed the hosts further than many expected, the main difference on the scoreboard being the reliable boot of Melvyn Jaminet.
So how will they fare in the group stage?
On paper the Fijians are the third best team in Pool C, but as has been evident in previous World Cups and recent tests, rankings mean very little. Their first two matches are arguably the hardest, with Wales in Bordeaux followed by Australia in Saint Etienne. Warren Gatland’s side are very much in transition, with a lot of young players coming through who are untested on the world stage. Meanwhile Eddie Jones’ poor end to his tenure as England head coach has followed him down under. You’d think if Fiji can claim at least one win from these two, they’re in a good position to nab one of the qualifying spots for the quarter finals.
There is a phrase in rugby that there are no easy games and Georgia will certainly be out to prove that adage true. There has been a debate for a few years about whether their form merits inclusion in the Six Nations, and the argument for their involvement has risen to the fore this year – unbeaten in eight, which includes wins against Wales, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Romania (twice), group opponents Portugal, and an impressive win against a USA side missing from this year’s World Cup. The final team in the group, Portugal, have also beaten the USA this year, pipping them to qualification, meaning Fiji cannot afford to undervalue them.
How do the Fijians play?
Fiji have been a big name on the World Sevens circuit for years now, and that style of play is becoming more apparent in the 15-a-side game too. With speedsters in the backs, and big, mobile players in the forwards, the whole squad excel at keeping the ball alive in a similar style to the Barbarians.
This is emphasised by the Fijian Super Rugby side who averaged 7.56 carries per kick which was the highest of any club across all of the major leagues last season. Their reluctance to change from this style can lead to errors but makes them one of the most entertaining teams to watch.
Strengths and weaknesses
The one big surprise when the squad was announced was the exclusion of Ben Volavola. The lack of experience at fly-half could be a detriment to controlling territory, but 23-year-old Caleb Muntz has played well in their games this year. The territory battle may be a struggle. Their Super Rugby club had the lowest average kicks per game of any major club side last season. On average they kicked 14.6 times per game compared to a high of 34.7 by Leicester Tigers. It does heap more responsibility onto scrum-half Frank Lomani, showing their half-backs as a potential weakness.
The strength in the Fijian squad is the explosive power and silky hands of their backs. Centre Semi Radradra is the stand-out name in a backs division. Radradra was the best centre in the world last season for carries, metres and gainline success per game. He was the best player in the entire world for offloads. Captain Waisea Nayacalevu and the thunderous Josua Tuisova are also experienced heads. The fact that only one of those played against France is testament to the strength in depth.
Who’s in the squad?
More than half of the squad play their club rugby in their homeland with Fijian Drua. The improvement of that club in Super Rugby from 2022 to 2023 is unbelievable and they reached the play-offs for the first time this year.
Although there was only one uncapped player named in the 33-man squad (Jone Koroiduadua, who made his debut against France on 19th August), this will be the first World Cup for 24 of the squad. On the flipside, Peni Ravai, Levani Botia and Waisea Nayacalevu will be headed to their third World Cup.
The make-up of where these players ply their club rugby is balanced, with several Europe-based talents who play in the Premiership, URC or Top 14. The centres and wings are stacked with household names.
The one main concern is if injury strikes at half-back. You could argue that having the Lomani/Muntz partnership that plays week-in, week-out for the Drua is a good thing, but one injury in either position means you’re relying on the Fijian Drua’s second or third-choice half-back at a World Cup.
Props: Eroni Mawi (Saracens), Peni Ravai (Queensland Reds), Jone Koroiduadua (Fijian Drua), Mesake Doge (Dragons), Luke Tagi (Provence), Samu Tawake (Fijian Drua)
Hookers: Tevita Ikanivere (Fijian Drua), Sam Matavesi (Northampton Saints), Zuriel Togiatama (Fijian Drua)
Locks: Isoa Nasilasila (Fijian Drua), Temo Mayanavanua (Lyon), Te Ahiwaru Cirikidaveta (Fijian Drua), Albert Tuisue (Gloucester), Lekima Tagitagivalu (Pau)
Back row: Levani Botia (Stade Rochelais), Vilive Miramira (Fijian Drua), Meli Derenalagai (Fijian Drua), Viliame Mata (Edinburgh)
Scrum-halves: Frank Lomani (Fijian Drua), Simione Kuruvoli (Fijian Drua), Peni Matawalu (Fijian Drua)
Fly-halves: Caleb Muntz (Fijian Drua), Teti Tela (Fijian Drua)
Centres: Josua Tuisova (Racing 92), Semi Radradra (Bristol Bears), Waisea Nayacalevu (Toulon), Kalaveti Ravouvou (Fijian Drua), Sireli Maqala (Bayonne), Iosefo Masi (Fijian Drua)
Wings: Vinaya Habosi (Racing 92), Jiuta Wainiqolo (Toulon)
Full-backs: Iliasa Droasese (Fijian Drua), Selestino Ravutaumada (Fijian Drua)
Could this be Fiji’s best World Cup yet?
Arguably, yes. Coming off the back of that Pacific Nations Cup win, into a group where the two biggest names are struggling for form, could be the catalyst for these Flying Fijians to kick on to new heights.
There are some positions in the squad where they look a little light, but enough talent to put on a good showing regardless. After the first two games, we should have a clearer indication of where they’re at, but there’s a real chance of a quarter final spot at least, matching the performances of the 1987 and 2007 squads.