Saturday 20 January 2018

Fiji refuse to take offence at second-class status

David Kelly

David Kelly

So this is how the other half lives. To say that Fijian international rugby is at a low ebb would be rather the understatement.

The Fijian national side cannot even claim to be the best supported rugby team in their own troubled country – their world champion Sevens side inarguably possess that right.

As the Irish media alight for a press conference at their Castletroy base, it takes some moments to realise that we have, in fact, invaded their team headquarters.

Around us, players are being massaged. Here, a pair of second-rows engage in a tense battle of ping-pong; there, the rival scrum-halves lock horns around the pool table.

In an ante-room beside all this recreational activity, the media conference room doubles as the team's meeting room; copies of the 'Flying Fijian' playbook are liberally sprinkled throughout. One can only hazard a guess that the words "up" and "under" do not appear therein.

The great entertainers will breeze through this hotbed of south-west rugby as if they are a mere rumour on the wind.

Their cause is badly hampered by the extraordinary degrees to which European clubs can hold their best players to ransom.

Racing Metro have already been punished for resisting Fiji's attempts to call up classy wing Virimi Vakatawa and Fiji coach Inoke Male discreetly declines to comment on whether the IRB's actions were appropriate.

"I think we are missing more players than those that are currently available to us," Male says wearily.

Their mood cannot be helped by the arduous nature of this tour – a full-strength England team at Twickenham, Gloucester two nights ago, then Limerick and an, ahem, 'Ireland XV.'

Oh, and then Tbilisi to face Georgia. Nice.

That Ireland have deemed this encounter unworthy of even the reward of a cap, compounding the embarrassment of the fixture being shunted from Lansdowne Road – thanks to an inflexible commercial deal – could have provoked even more Fijian ire.

Instead, they are almost apologetically sanguine as if eager to embrace the smallest of mercies.

"We're still representing our country and that is a huge honour," says Scarlets prop and national captain Deacon Manu.

"There are opportunities for guys to put hands up and cement a place for the following week.

"We don't get influenced by the team in front of us or the size of the venue or the size of the crowd, we're just there to get things right for us moving forward."

Male adds: "Whether there are eight people there or 80,000, it is all the same to us. We want to be proud of our efforts."

Manu attests that, after a heavy defeat against England and a narrow loss to Gloucester, taking the scalp of Ireland would be a prized effort.

"It would be huge for the guys," he agrees. "It's important to get some momentum going into the Georgia game."

Fiji XV – M Talebula; S Koniferedi, V Goneva, J Matavesi, W Votu; J Ralulu, N Matawalu; J Yanuyanutawa, V Veikoso, D Manu (capt), L Nakarawa, A Naikatini, I Ratuva, M Ravulo, N Nagusa. Replacements: T Talemaitoga, M Saulo, S Sommoca, A Ratuniyarawa, J Domolailai, K Bola, R Fatiaki, T Matanavou.

Irish Independent

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