As one of the try scorers when the Flying Fijians pulled off one of the biggest shocks in Rugby World Cup history by beating Wales at the 2007 tournament in France, Fiji U20 coach Kele Leawere is someone who knows full well that no odds are insurmountable when you step onto a rugby field.
Twelve years on from that famous day in Nantes, the 28-test capped second-row finds himself in charge of the Fiji team that, in less than two months’ time, will compete at the World Rugby U20 Championship for the first time in five years.
Pooled with defending champions France, hosts Argentina and a Wales team that showed what they are capable of in beating England in the U20 Six Nations, the odds look stacked against Fiji, but Leawere’s own personal experience will no doubt serve as a source of inspiration to a squad laden with natural talent.
Fiji were promoted to the highest level of age-grade rugby following their victory in the World Rugby U20 Trophy 2018 and, combined with recent successes for senior development teams such as Fijian Drua and Fiji Warriors, and the Flying Fijians’ famous victory against France last November, the mood within Fijian rugby is upbeat.
It is hoped that the forthcoming Oceania Rugby U20 Championship will only add to the positivity, as Fiji compete against New Zealand, hosts Australia and Japan on the Gold Coast from 26 April-4 May.
Of the 30 players selected for this tournament, only five – three of them front-rows – were part of the Trophy-winning squad in Romania last year. These players include captain and hooker Tevita Ikanivere, loose-head Livai Natave, tight-head Joseva Nasaroa, scrum-half Simione Kuruvoli and fly-half Caleb Muntz.
Ticking the right boxes
Leawere is interested to see how his charges perform among such exalted company as the countdown towards the big test in Argentina begins.
“First, we're going to make sure that we've got the combinations right and that we've got players who can perform at a higher level, playing against players who have more experience. New Zealand and Australia will have players that are actually playing in Super Rugby or in the academy of the ITM Cup teams,” he said.
“It's crucial for us to build on where we left off last year and to see if we are able to compete with the best U20 teams in the world. It's very important for us to tick all our boxes before we head off to the Junior World Cup.”
Fiji finished 11th at the World Rugby U20 Championship in 2012 and 2013 before suffering relegation the following year. On their return to the Championship, Leawere has set the bar high.
"Plus on mettra d'effort et d'énergie dans les U20, plus on verra les résultats dans les années à venir lorsque les joueurs seront sélectionnés pour la Coupe du Monde de Rugby..."
“We don't want to make up the numbers, we're there to compete,” he insisted. “The team that looks after the ball well and is eager to play will get the result as the Flying Fijians have done. Nothing is impossible; it doesn't matter if you're tier one or tier two.
“If you go in there and do the hard yards and set your goals and make sure you achieve them, then that will be achievable.”
The lifeblood of the Flying Fijians
A good showing in Argentina will be another important milestone in the development of the player pathway that has seen Fiji Warriors follow up the U20 Trophy win last year with a fourth consecutive World Rugby Pacific Challenge title in March.
“Last year when we won the Junior World Trophy, it was mostly the players from the islands and there were only two overseas-based players. You can tell that the pathway for players in Fiji is actually paying off in terms of the work that's been done behind the scenes to prepare them,” he said.
A pathway without U20 Championship rugby, though, can only take players so far, which is why Leawere believes promotion to the top tier was so important for their development.
“It's very important, it's a pathway for players to aim towards or to target in terms of coming up through the under-18s and the under-20s and going into this competition and playing with the best rugby players from the other countries.”
After five years as an assistant coach to the team, the 44-year-old replaces Koli Sewabu as the man in charge of nurturing the next generation of Flying Fijian players. It is a role he is proud to take on.
“It's important for us former players to come back and give something back into rugby, to bring knowledge and experience to the younger players,” he said.
“The U20s are the foundation of our Flying Fijians so it’s important to set the right platform. The more we put our time and energy and effort into the U20s, we will reap the rewards in a few years’ time when these boys are playing for the Flying Fijians at the World Cup.”