Fiji captain Waisea Nayacalevu (centre) and lock Te Ahiwaru Cirikidaveta celebrate their victory over Australia at the 2023 Rugby World Cup
Lyon (AFP) - Fiji ended a 69-year hoodoo by securing a crucial World Cup win over Australia on Sunday, confirming their status as many people’s dark horses for the tournament in France.
In beating England in a pre-tournament warm-up and now putting in back-to-back dominant performances against Tier 1 nations Wales and Australia in their World Cup pool, Fiji have demonstrated an ability to add forward steel to their traditional backline flair.
And one major reason for that improvement is their Super Rugby franchise, the Fijian Drua.
Having a fully-professional club side taking part in top level competition to complement the star players playing oversees has removed one of the team’s historic weaknesses in which their domestic-based players were essentially amateurs.
“With Drua, you see not only do they try and educate them around being professional, they also give them quality game time at the Super (Rugby) level,” said Fiji’s kicking coach Seremaia Bai after Sunday’s emotional 22-15 victory over the Wallabies.
“I think it’s massively positive for the development of rugby and you can see the way most of the boys who played in the Drua, it’s really improved the performance of the team.”
That was something not lost of Australia’s head coach Eddie Jones, who described the creation of the Drua as “really positive.”
Fijian Drua players performing their Haka ahead of the Super Rugby quarter-final match against the Crusaders in Christchurch
Fiji have always had talented stars that have played in Australia, New Zealand or Europe, but they never had back-up players of a similar level, meaning their performance would inevitably tail off deep into matches against Tier 1 nations.
In 2019 they led Australia 14-12 at half-time in their World Cup pool stage match in Japan, only to be swept aside after the break to lose 39-21.
But not this time. Leading 12-8 after 40 minutes, Fiji had stretched heir lead from four to seven points by full-time.
- Rugby Championship dream -
Jones pointed to Fiji’s replacement hooker Tevita Ikanivere as an example of how the Super Rugby franchise is benefitting the national team.
“He’s a quality player and he’s become a quality player through training full-time with the Drua and also playing with the Drua at a high level,” said Jones after his side’s defeat to Fiji.
“I think that’s the real benefit for Fiji Rugby and if they can keep growing that and keep growing that system, there’s no reason why they can’t be in the Rugby Championship.”
Fiji hooker Tevita Ikanivere, a product of the country's High Performance Unit, celebrates victory over Australia
That is a dream for Fiji’s New Zealand-born coach Simon Raiwalui, who insisted after the match that the only way to keep improving is for Fiji to play more matches against Tier 1 nations.
“I’m always about being included in those sort of competitions,” he said.
“If those matches become available to us, we’ve got our hand up, we’re ready to play those games.”
A lack of games is a major issue for Fiji, who have played fewer than half the number of internationals since the last World Cup than Tier 1 nations.
“I’ll give you an example, I played for Fiji for probably 14 years but I only played 53 Test matches,” said Bai.
“As guys from Australia and New Zealand, they may only play six years and manage to play 100 Test matches.
“You can see the difference between gaining that experience versus the tier-two nation where we always struggle to be competing sustainably at the highest level.”
That is where the Drua has been invaluable.
- Inspiration to youth -
Created in 2017, the team initially played in the Australian domestic National Rugby Championship, winning it in one of the three years they participated.
Then in 2022, the Drua were invited to take part in the Super Rugby competition.
They won two out of 12 matches and finished second from bottom, but this year they won six matches and reached the play-offs, where they lost to eventual champions the Crusaders, who boast All Blacks stars such as Richie Mo’unga and Sam Whitelock.
Isoa Nasilasila (centre) has been able to play in Super Rugby thanks to the creation of the Fijian Drua
Australian-born lock Isoa Nasilasila, who started on Sunday against the country of his birth, was given his Super Rugby chance with the Drua and says the team is not just developing local players but also plays a vital role in inspiring the next generations.
“For all the young kids growing up, they can look at Fijian Drua players. That’s their team so they can aspire to be someone that’s closer to home for them and they can relate to.”