World Cup Preview: Fiji
POOL D SPOTLIGHT: Fiji has always possessed an abundance of attacking flair.
However, coach John McKee says discipline will be crucial if the Pacific islanders are to emerge from their pool in Japan.
McKee’s men have a mountain to climb to make the quarterfinals for the third time in their history, facing Australia first up in a pool that also includes Wales, Georgia and Uruguay.
However, the Fijians have already displayed their giant-killing credentials, claiming a maiden 21-14 victory over France last year that left Les Bleus reeling.
The win focused attention on McKee, the low profile New Zealander who has quietly revolutionised Fiji’s approach to 15s rugby since he took over in 2014.
While encouraging the exuberant anything-goes attack that earned the Flying Fijians their nickname, he has worked hard to improve the less glamorous aspects of their game including scrums and line-outs.
He has also instilled discipline in areas such as diet and training, as well as encouraging his players to remain composed on the pitch.
Previously, opponents might fall victim to some brilliant Fijian running but they could usually depend on being handed an opportunity to hit back when a rash tackle or intemperate punch incurred a penalty.
“Yellow cards affect performance, so we need to play clean, hard rugby,” McKee said. “We’ve got to have 15 players on the park at all times.”
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The approach of blending players’ natural ability with a large dose of professionalism is similar to that adopted by Englishman Ben Ryan, who guided Fiji’s sevens team to Olympic gold in 2016.
McKee had already taken Fiji to four successive Pacific Nations Cup titles before the France win put him on the radar.
Their strong form has continued in the lead-up to the World Cup, including defeating the Maori All Blacks for the first time in 62 years as part of a drawn two-match series.
They were at their attacking best in their final warm-up against Tonga, snaring intercepts and making defence-splitting runs to score five tries in a 29-19 win.
McKee praised the defensive steel his side showed against the hard-hitting Tongans and the improvements shown by Fiji have not been lost on Australia.
Flyhalf Bernard Foley said the Wallabies could not afford to look ahead to their second pool match against Six Nations champions Wales because Fiji had the talent to punish any complacency.
“For us, we’ll be focusing on that first game against Fiji,” he said.
“They look like they are building a remarkable squad. They’ve got a lot of talent. We will be well aware of their attacking threats and how we want to play them.”
Player to watch:
Leone Nakarawa. Contesting his third World Cup, lock Nakarawa has a blend of athleticism and power that won him a sevens gold medal at the Rio Olympics and the 2018 European player of the year award.
Aim for the tournament:
“[This squad] has the potential to challenge for a place in the play-offs and make Fiji proud,” coach John McKee.
Coach: John McKee (New Zealand, since May 2014)
Number of registered players: 123,900
World Rugby ranking: 9 (September 2, 2019)
World Cup record:
1999: Quarterfinal play-off
Pool matches (all times GMT):
Fiji v Australia
Date: September 21
Fiji v Uruguay
Date: September 25
Fiji v Georgia
Date: October 3
Fiji v Wales
Date: October 9
Backs: Kini Murimurivalu (La Rochelle, Alivereti Veitokani (London Irish), Vereniki Goneva (Harlequins), Filipo Nakosi (Agen), Waisea Nayacalevu (Stade Francais), Josua Tuisova (Lyon), Levani Botia (La Rochelle), Jale Vatubua (Pau), Semi Radradra (Bordeaux-Begles), Josh Matavesi (Newcastle Falcons), Ben Volavola (Racing 92), Frank Lomani (Fiji Drua), Nikola Matawalu (Glasgow Warriors) , Henry Seniloli (Doncaster Knights).
Forwards: Semi Kunatani (Harlequins), Viliame Mata (Edinburgh), Mosese Voka (Fiji Drua), Dominiko Waqaniburotu (Pau), Peceli Yato (Clermont), Tevita Cavubati (Harlequins), Leone Nakarawa (Racing 92), Apisalome Ratuniyarawa (Northampton Saints), Tevita Ratuva (Bordeaux-Begles), Campese Ma’afu (Leicester Tigers), Eroni Mawi (Fiji Drua), Peni Ravai (Bordeaux-Begles), Manasa Saulo (London Irish), Lee Roy Atalifo (Jersey), Mesulame Dolokoto (Glasgow Warriors), Samuel Matavesi (Cornish Pirates), Ratu Veremalua Vugakoto (Mont de Marsan).