Set up to help the transition of Island-based players to test match rugby in August 2017, the Fiji Drua story has been one of immediate success.
At the end of October, the World Rugby-funded development team beat Queensland Country 36-26 in the Australian National Rugby Championship (NRC) grand final, just two years after entering the competition, while eight of its star turns have graduated into the Flying Fijians squad currently on tour in Europe.
Explaining the benefits that the Fiji Drua team brings, Fiji coach John McKee said: “It is really for the preparation of our good young players on the island. We have quite a good academy system but there was a bit of a disconnect between the level they can reach on the island and the international game. Participation in the National Rugby Championship of Australia has certainly helped bridge that gap.
“The NRC gives us an opportunity to give those players a more high-performance environment over a 10-12 week period and the timing of the competition leads into the November tour perfectly.
“It caused a lot of excitement in Fiji and it was a fantastic effort by all involved to win that competition because it is quite challenging with all the travel and having to manage your squad through the whole series.
“We’ve had our eye on some young players (with promotion to the Flying Fijians in mind) and I think this has accelerated their development.”
Strength in depth
With Rugby World Cup 2019 just around the corner, McKee feels that Fiji Drua gives him more scope in selection.
“I think in terms of our strength in depth we are in a much better position just under a year out from this World Cup to where we were leading up to the 2015 World Cup.
“We had a good squad going into 2015 but you were always worried that if you got some injuries in certain positions, the quality would drop off quite quickly.”
Particular focus has been put on the front row and hooker Mesulame Dolokoto is one of the players McKee rates highly from Fiji Drua’s title-winning group.
“He captained Fiji U18s in 2013, and over the past two years has made the transition to the front row. He is a little bit raw in some aspects of front-row play but is a dynamic, exciting young player and certainly one to keep an eye on.”
Also included in the Fiji squad are Drua captain Mosese Voka, NRC Rising Star of the Year Alivereti Veitokani, and the two-try hero from the final in Lautoka, second-row Albert Tuisue.
“Alivereti played very well and now needs to step up at test match level, I expect him to be challenging for the number one spot,” stated McKee, the New Zealander who has been in charge of Fiji since 2014.
“Albert had an outstanding series, I know there is some interest in this part of the world in him, so I expect he would probably pick up a contract before too long.
“Frank Lomani (main picture), the half-back, is another player to have benefitted from this competition and played very well. He comes into the Flying Fijians squad in top form and is really talented.”
Dolokoto, Tuisue and Veitokani have all been named on the bench for Fiji's first November international against Scotland on Saturday.
McKee says that other Drua players, like U20 prop Luke Tagi, narrowly missed out on selection, but he expects him to challenge for a place at the Rugby World Cup next year.
“In some ways, he was unlucky not to come on this tour. He has come through our system, the academy and the U20s, and is another classic example of someone who really benefits from playing in the NRC.
“Beforehand, someone like him, who is not ready to go overseas as a professional player but is too old to play U20s would be stuck in no-man's land in terms of a high level of competition. He played really well in the competition and is developing really quickly, I think he will only get better and better and will be challenging for a place in the World Cup squad.”
With Fiji winning promotion back to the World Rugby U20 Championship for the first time since 2014 by winning the sister U20 Trophy in September and Fiji Warriors completing a hat-trick of World Rugby Pacific Challenge titles on top of the Drua’s success, it has been a good year so far for the Pacific Islanders.
“Credit to the coaching staff around our academy programme and the support they give to players coming out of the school system to bring them through. It is not easy to develop a really good high-performance programme, but I think we have made some big steps in that area and it is starting to show in the results of the U20s,” McKee eulogised.
“The World Rugby U20 Championship is where we want to be, we need our best young players to be playing against the best tier-one players to fully develop.
“It is always very exciting to see these young talented players come through and every year we always seem to find some more.”
Sitting at the top of the pyramid are the Flying Fijians and two wins from their three November tests would represent a good return considering they play two higher-ranked nations in Scotland and France with a game against Uruguay in between.
“First and foremost, to get two tier one tests is really important for us. To be really competitive at this level and at the World Cup, we need to be used to playing at the intensity of tier one test match rugby.
“Certainly Scotland and France will bring us those challenges. With our players and style of play, they are two teams we think can do well against, but we’ll really have to be on top of our game to win either one or both of those matches.”
Scotland provide the first challenge at Murrayfield on Saturday, Viliame Mata’s home from home.
The 2016 Olympic gold medallist has been one of the standout performers for Edinburgh in the PRO14 this season, while rangy second-row Leone Nakarawa is another likely to get a good reception from Scottish supporters who remember him fondly from his time at Glasgow.
“I think it is going to be a pretty exciting game between two teams with a positive attitude towards moving the ball around and having a crack around the edges,” admitted McKee.
“I think it will be quite an open game, and that could suit us. But Scotland are a pretty smart team and they’ll go direct at us as well, they won’t just try and throw the ball around willy-nilly, they’ll try and get some go-forward dominance before going wide, so our defence will have to be top drawer.”