'Vultures' tearing heart out of Fijian rugby, blasts boss
SINCE Fiji last visited these shores in 2009, they have played 16 Test matches. In the same period, Ireland have played 35.
When Declan Kidney wants to pick players, he simply selects his squad and, if fit, they arrive on cue – a world away from what faces his opposite number this Saturday, Inoke Male, when he wants to bring together the best and the brightest from Fiji.
On the face of it, Male has access to some of the top rugby talent in the game. Thirty Fijians ply their trade in Europe's three major leagues, but just 10 are in his squad.
It is not that the coach, who won 15 caps between 1998 and 2001, is ignoring their talents, but that their clubs are not releasing them.
The issue is not a new one, but it appears to be coming to a head with the IRB reportedly considering offering an amnesty to clubs who break their rules with regard to making players available, as long as they commit to releasing players in future.
Last Saturday, the Islanders were exposed in their stars' absence as England ran in seven tries in a 54-12 Twickenham rout.
Fiji arrive in Ireland tomorrow for a non-cap international on Saturday, having faced Gloucester last night, and their resources are being stretched.
"It is very difficult for us when we cannot pick our best talent," Male said. "We are happy that this problem has now been raised in public and we need the IRB to do something about it. We are confident this will now happen."
The problem now runs deeper, however, than the established internationals opting out of tours and even World Cups to play for their clubs.
There is a real fear that the up-and-coming stars of the future are being whisked into French and English academies and lost forever.
Male has accused the two countries of "behaving like vultures". He tried to call up Racing Metro back Virimi Vakatawa but the 18-year-old declined, while Clermont's former Fiji U-20 winger Noa Nakaitaci also resisted the call and appears to be heading towards playing for France.
For a nation of less than 900,000 people, such attrition is devastating. But, given the poverty back home and the large size of the families that players look out for, it is hard to blame them for not squaring up to the employers who pay their lucrative contracts.
"Young players now want to pursue options for other countries rather than coming on tour and that is not a good sign," Male admitted.
"England and France already have a number of players to choose from and for players to be poached from a small country is not acceptable.
"If you go to the secondary school championships you will see scouts from Australia, New Zealand and England trying to find your players who want to go overseas. They are taking our young players like vultures."
When they take the field on Saturday, there will be plenty of talk of the flair and colour that Fiji bring to the game.
It is true that the Islanders' contribution to Sevens is massive and their abilities in the new Olympic sport are breathtaking, but when it comes to 15 on 15, scrums, mauls and line-outs, they cannot survive without everything going for them.
Occasionally, they produce something special. In 2007, they beat Wales in one of the World Cup's great games, while in 2010 they drew at the Millennium Stadium.
But, like Georgia, Samoa and Tonga, their ability to beat the big boys regularly will never be realised unless they play against them and, the way the international game is modelled and financed, that isn't going to happen soon.
"What we need is more frequent exposure to international rugby at the top level," Male concluded. "If the tier-one teams gave us more matches, we would develop as quickly as Argentina are developing now they are involved in the Rugby Championship.
"I am convinced we would be competitive if teams like England agreed to play us every year, sometimes in Fiji."