Boks will release mongrel to eclipse sunshine boys

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The Independent Online

Behind the Fijians, the men who have lit up the Rugby World Cup, lies a priceless quality that endears them to all who share their company. It is the ability to smile, to have fun. At 8am, as the sun climbed above the old fort overlooking Marseille's ancient harbour, we asked lock Kele Leawere what he thought of the team's luxury hotel in the historic French port. His great eyes lit up, almost bulging out of their sockets.

He smiled the smile of a morning sunrise and beamed: "Oh, this hotel is flash, eh? This is what happens if you get to the quarter-finals. I am sure they had booked in the Wales team but now we are here. But this is too flash for us."

Maybe this afternoon's World Cup quarter-final against South Africa at Marseille's Stade Vélodrome will be too much of a test for the Fijians, especially with key playmaker Nicky Little on crutches from the serious knee injury he suffered in the last moments of their dramatic 38-34 win over Wales last weekend.

But Fiji have made their statement about rugby at this World Cup, whatever the outcome of today's quarter-final. Leawere, now 33, laments the years of lost opportunities he feels have been the fate of Fiji on the world stage. "If we got more opportunities to play Tier One nations, it would be good for us. Every year of my career I have been playing Tonga and Samoa. It is really difficult to gauge how good you are if you are only playing the same team.

"We want to play the big boys, we want to give it a go. The islanders have shown at this World Cup what could be possible. Look at the All Blacks and see how many islanders they have in their team. But the thing is, if we received financial support and were able to keep our own players without bigger brother coming and taking our best guys, we would be much better. Maybe Tonga, Fiji and Samoa would be in the last eight of the World Cup finals every time."

But maybe that is what scares the bigger countries like New Zealand and Australia. And South Africa. We must surely conclude from the words of the Springbok captain John Smit that the South Africans are more than a little cautious about a contest today.

Smit says the Boks aim to "strangle" the Fijians to a World Cup death by playing a type of slow-poison rugby. It hardly promises a treat in store for those at Marseille's wonderfully atmospheric stadium but it might be mightily effective.

"This is about rediscovering the mongrel in our pack. We are going to get ugly against Fiji," Smit says. But what of great runners like the exciting Bryan Habana, the Springboks' electric wing?

"Festival rugby, as we tried to play against the Americans, is not the way to play Fiji in sudden-death rugby," says Smit. "We need to go back to the Test match style that suits us. Fiji's backs are monstrous. We don't want them getting too much ball. If you loosen up against Fiji you will be in trouble."

South Africa should annihilate Fiji in both scrums and line-outs, setting the foundations for a convincing win. But if Fiji are to go out, they will do so having made a serious point to the International Rugby Board. They have shown at this tournament they can be better than some traditional rugby nations. So what will the authorities do? Smile and ignore the inherent message? Or throw the resources at the islanders that could see the game expanded in that part of the world? There is a lot more than just a quarter-final at stake here.