The joy on the faces of the large crowd bathed in sunshine at Churchill Park in Lautoka when the Fijian Drua shocked the Crusaders in the third round of Super Rugby Pacific last weekend spoke volumes for the passion the people of the Islands have for rugby.

To witness the Drua turn the tables on a team that had beaten them 61-5 last time out and has dominated Super Rugby for years was something that the umbrella-waving, short-sleeved hordes will never forget. Especially as so little rugby has been played on the Islands in the last few years due to COVID-19.

The packed stands were bouncing as soon as the flags were raised to confirm Kemu Valetini’s penalty had won the Drua the match, 25-24, signalling the latest milestone in the incredible journey of one of professional rugby’s newest outfits, that was put together hastily in time for the start of Super Rugby Pacific 2022.

It has given Fiji’s rugby-mad supporters another team to throw their support behind, in addition to the Flying Fijians, who have been almost invisible since the last Rugby World Cup.

Fiji’s senior national men’s 15s team has only played twice on home soil since June 2019, but they’re set to face Tonga in Lautoka this July as part of a five-match, pre-RWC 2023 itinerary.

With just seven months to go before the tournament gets underway, new head coach Simon Raiwalui only has a small window to change things, but one thing he considers to be non-negotiable is making sure the team reconnects with its public.

“The biggest thing for us is getting the cultural side right. We won’t be changing too much with the rugby, the players will take a lot of ownership with that at the start but we’ll really look to reconnect with Fiji,” said Vern Cotter’s successor.

“With COVID-19 and not being able to mix or really go out, that has been difficult, and obviously we didn’t have any home fixtures for a couple of years due to COVID and we couldn’t travel.

“So I think one of my main goals is if we are going to lean on the country and ask them to support us, we have really got to invest in them and get out and be seen by the public.”

Fiji’s got talent

In his previous role as Fiji’s General Manager for High Performance, Raiwalui was one of the people responsible for the team’s successful launch. And now that he is the man in charge of the Flying Fijians, he will get to benefit from their stunning progress because the widening pool of players exposed to top-level competition can only strengthen his hand when it comes to selection.

In their first season, the Drua fed 16 players into the national team’s squad for the World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup and the percentage of home-based players is set to increase further in time for Rugby World Cup 2023 if the World Rugby-supported franchise continues to impress.

“The opportunity to play the Crusaders, who’ve been champions numerous times, at home, is obviously a huge step for us. I am immensely proud of the effort of the boys and the staff. It’s been an incredible journey,” said the former Newport, Sale Sharks and Racing 92 player.

“When you talk about a short runway, that was a real short runway in terms of getting the Drua ready. We were told at the end of August (2021) that we had to put a squad and staff together in a month which is unheard of at that sort of level.

“I think in terms of what we achieved last year, it was immense. A lot of the players hadn’t played for 18 months, probably 90 per cent of them hadn’t been in a professional environment before, yet we competed in nearly all the matches.

“The work done over that first season and coming into this second year has been huge and you can see the benefits in terms of systems, fitness and the discipline. The boys have grown into being professionals and year three and year four will be even better.

“We have never had a problem with talent and now we have got an opportunity to develop them within our system and they have got an opportunity to stay at home and develop in one of the best competitions in the world. That is only going to benefit Fiji rugby moving forward.”

Plugging the gap

The Fijian Drua are a classic example of how World Rugby have attempted to narrow the gap at test level by funding new player development pathways and creating High Performance competitions that expose players within developing nations to a better standard of competition.

“That was the missing gap for us. The pathway went up to U20s and the Warriors, which is technically U23, but after that you played in the domestic competition or you went overseas, So what the Drua gave us was an opportunity to have of up to 40 players live and breathe rugby professionally at home in Fiji, and it has obviously grown our talent pool, our depth chart.

“We have obviously been very reliant on our European-based players but now we have got another 40-plus players in our depth charts that probably weren’t all there 18 months ago, so it is a huge success story for Fiji rugby and we’ll only benefit from it moving forward.

“The number of players that were up for selection in the first year was huge and with the continued success and development of players means there will be a number of people putting their hands up for selection which is obviously a good problem to have.”

Fiji are due to meet up for the first time as a squad under Raiwalui at the beginning of July, before they take on Tonga and Samoa later that month and then Japan, France and England in August.

Those five matches will give Raiwalui a good indication of where his eclectic team, drawn from all over the world, will be at before they head off to France for Pool C fixtures against Wales, Australia, Georgia and Portugal.

“Due to the circumstances, getting fixtures has been difficult and getting our team together has been difficult. The November before we couldn’t pick anyone from the southern hemisphere so we had to pick a purely European-based squad and in New Zealand we were in quarantine for two weeks before facing the All Blacks.

“So there have been challenges over the three years but we are really looking forward to the fixture list leading into the Word Cup and our preparation.

“We don’t have enough time to reinvent the wheel and we’ll be working on the things that have been put in place in the last three-and-a-bit years with the tactical stuff and just try and fine-tune it and go to the World Cup in the best condition possible. I think it’ll lead to us being in the right space.”

C is for competitiveness

Raiwalui won 43 caps for Fiji as a teak-tough, second-rower and captained his country on 10 occasions as well as having a successful club career in England, Wales and France before venturing into coaching.

Prior to returning to Fiji just before the global pandemic struck, Raiwalui was the Wallabies’ assistant forwards coach and he says that time working with then head coach Michael Cheika was instrumental to his development as a coach.

“The experience with Australia was great,” he said. “l got to work with the highest quality players in a system that is geared towards success and I got to work with some great coaches. ‘Cheik’ was a huge part of my development. He is one of the best coaches I have been involved with. He is very loyal and challenges you to trust in your ability, he empowers you, and he is one of the biggest influences in my career.”

Cheika has obviously since moved on to Argentina, depriving Raiwalui of the chance of pitting his wits against his old mentor when Fiji take on the Eddie Jones-coached Australia in Saint-Étienne on 17 September.

Wales, Fiji’s first opponents in Bordeaux a week earlier, also have a ‘new’ head coach in Warren Gatland so Raiwalui will be in good company in that respect.

Fiji then close out their Pool C fixtures against Georgia, also in Bordeaux, on 30 September, and Portugal, in Toulouse, on 8 October.

“You see a team like Portugal, they play a beautiful brand of rugby, they are very open and love to attack and their set-piece is good. It’s fantastic that they have got to the World Cup and I think they’ll excite a lot of the spectators.

“We know Georgia, we have played them a number of times now, and they get better and better and better, and don’t be fooled by what is going on at the moment, Wales and Australia will be at their peak come the World Cup.

“It’s a tough pool but all the pools are tough and I think this will probably be one of the most open World Cups ever.”