Coach fears for victorious Fijians

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The Independent Online
Fiji will grind to a halt tomorrow when the tiny Pacific nation enjoys a public holiday to honour its victorious World Cup Sevens rugby union team.

However, amid the euphoria over Fiji's triumph in last month's tournament in Hong Kong, the man charged with ensuring Fiji's overall rugby success has mixed feelings.

While acknowledging the scale of Fiji's achievement in beating the major rugby powers in the seven-a-side version of the game, the national Test coach, Brad Johnstone, believes the triumph may prove bittersweet. "One thing's for sure, it will definitely make my job harder." the 46-year- old former New Zealand Test forward said.

According to Johnstone, who played 13 Tests at prop between 1976 and 1980, Fiji's prowess at the abridged form of the game works against them at the 15-a-side level, his own area of responsibility. He says the true measure of performance in rugby union can only be judged by results in the full-scale game.

Yet in Fiji, it is sevens rugby, regarded as an enjoyable distraction elsewhere in the world, that dominates thinking. When schoolchildren across Fiji's 300 islands get the day off tomorrow, it will be sevens, not the 15-a-side game, that they will play.

The Fijians delighted crowds in Hong Kong with their vibrant attacking approach, leaving one beaten opponent, the Welshman Darren Edwards, to declare them "in a class of their own" after their record seventh win in the tournament.

But at Test level, those attacking skills have proved inadequate to compensate for other weaknesses. Fiji are currently no match for the established nations such as Australia, New Zealand or England.

Unless they switch their attention away from sevens, the gap will only widen, Johnstone believes. "Being a former All Black I find it all totally frustrating," he said. "There is a lack of perception of what is real rugby."

Johnstone believes Fiji have the potential, if properly directed, to transfer their prowess at sevens to a far bigger, and more significant stage - the 15-a-side World Cup, which will next be staged in Wales in 1999.

"Fijian players have tremendous leg strength, they're naturally fit and agile, and their basic handling and passing skills are outstanding. They are a joy to work with," he said.

Fiji's current standing at 15-a-side will be tested next month when they travel to New Zealand for a six-match tour, culminating in a one-off Test against the All Blacks on 14 June. Despite the significance of the fixture, Johnstone sees his side suffering because of Fiji's obsession with sevens.

Johnstone says Fiji - who lack the financial muscle of the professional rugby nations- cannot yet compete against the top sides at 15-a-side, denying rugby supporters the opportunity to see some of the most naturally gifted players in the world performing to their potential.

"If my players could train every day in the professional environment other nations take for granted they would develop out of this world. They have an amazing ability to play rugby.

"I truly believe they are capable of winning the World Cup. It might take a decade but I believe it is possible."