We are still days away from Fiji’s game against England yet something is already abundantly clear – the road to a level playing field remains incredibly long.
Progress has been made in negotiations with the clubs in England, and especially France, to ensure that player release issues are soon a thing of the past, giving head coach John McKee his best available squad this weekend.
Managing the financial deficit his side face in comparison to England is another matter. Each of the hosts’ players on Saturday will earn £22,000. Fiji’s entire squad will take home £9,200.
McKee and his players however aren’t interested in grumbling about the disparity between the two sides. Doing so days before facing the second-ranked side in the world would waste valuable time.
“That’s something out of our control. We are really concentrating on the game. There’s powers a lot higher than us that need to look at these sort of things,” McKee said.
“We operate under the regulations of the game and that’s what the host union agreement is, so that’s the world we operate in. That could change in the future, but in terms of this week it’s about how we prepare for the game.
“We believe we have a talented group of athletes and we work the best we can to a) assemble the best squad we can and b) to make sure we are fully prepared. The professional era of rugby does make it difficult assembling our players but you look at what the Fiji Sevens squad achieved; the programme ran on a shoestring compared to a lot of other countries, so it’s not always about the money.
“The challenge for us is getting time together with our squad with the limited Regulation 9 camp windows and that type of thing. That’s something that probably needs to be addressed over time to help us be truly competitive.”
Fiji’s best squad might have been even stronger were it for the inclusion of Nathan Hughes. The Wasps back-row, born in Fiji, is expected to make his first start for England at Twickenham and was contacted by McKee in the past.
Proposed changes to the residency agreement feel closer than ever, not least since the appointment of Agustín Pichot as World Rugby vice-chairman and his vocal opposition to the three-year rule. The lengthening of that regulation cannot come soon enough for the Pacific Islands.
“I spoke to Nathan a number of times over the past three years and he never actually made himself available to play for Fiji, which was disappointing,” McKee said.
“People make their own decisions. It is their life, it is their livelihood, it is their family. Under the current regulations after 36 months you are eligible to play for a country based on continuous residency.
“The Fiji Rugby Union’s position is that it should be extended. If people do move and emigrate to other countries then after a period of time they should qualify.
“The Fiji Rugby Union’s policy is that it should be extended to 60 months which is five years, which it in the current professional era of the game I think that would be a more realistic timeframe.”
Those players who have been available suffered a tough loss to the Barbarians last Friday in Belfast, McKee admitting the intensity of the first quarter caught his side out in their first game this month.
Time was not been Fiji’s friend in the build-up to that fixture, as is often the case, although having the game on a Friday has at least allowed McKee and his coaching staff more time to analyse what went wrong, and to prepare for Eddie Jones and his in-form side.
“[Before the Barbarians] really we had a three-day camp in Toulouse where all the professional players came in. With travelling and everything, we really had four sessions, Monday afternoon, two on Tuesday and Wednesday morning. The requirements that the professional players return to their clubs and some of them played last weekend for their clubs and then we reassembled on Sunday night in Belfast.
“There were still players coming in on Monday morning, some players played on Sunday having had a Friday night game. It was a pretty tough week’s preparation, but in terms of this week having played on Friday has probably helped us.
“We did not have to travel the day after the game and we had some good time to do some analysis and really hit the ground in training yesterday. We’re disappointed in the result against the Barbarians, but it will make us a better team this week.”
One area where the gap between Fiji and the Tier 1 nations has noticeably closed is the scrum – a surprise package during last year’s Rugby World Cup, and truthfully one of the best in the tournament.
No one is suggesting that Fiji dull down their flair – far from it – but a balanced Fiji with a set-piece to stay competitive with the best in the sport? Now there’s a thought.
McKee has already worked hard to shift the preception of playing in the front row back in Fiji, and the efforts of those props and hookers at the Rugby World Cup certainly helped to inspire youngsters not built for Sevens back home.
“It is a major project for us – we identified it a couple of years ago and you saw at the World Cup it was not just something that happened in the month or so before the World Cup. With those front rowers it has gone on for over two years,” McKee makes clear.
“It is not just the top level – they are quite competitive in the international scene now and more importantly for the long-term is the scrum programme back in Fiji. We have now got a crop of young props, 18 and 19 years of age who are in much better training programmes.
“Our scrum coach travels to Fiji and works with the school coaches and he works with the academy and will start to work with the provincial coaches to improve the level of scrum coaching in Fiji where players the right shape and size and very athletic players for the front row.
“In Fiji we have not traditionally had a culture of front row play and the great thing for me from the World Cup was suddenly there was a whole bunch of kids in Fiji who are the right shape to play front row have now got some role models.
“Before, the role models were always the Sevens players or the back rowers who could run hard, so the front rowers got left out of it a bit. We will see – it is a challenge for us, but towards 2019 and beyond we will see a lot of change there.”
Let’s hope that change isn’t the only one Fiji go through in the coming years.