If the long-suffering Fijians were depressed by Simon Raiwalui's decision not to play World Cup rugby in Australia next month, they are now in a state of blind panic. Ifereimi Rawaqa, the second-row forward earmarked to play the Raiwalui role, suffered a back injury in training yesterday and has joined the growing list of non-starters, so the islanders have appealed to their former captain's better nature in the hope of securing a last-minute change of heart.
"This is not a put-on," Pio Bosco, the chief executive of Fijian Rugby Union, said. "We need Simon's help now, more than ever." For his part the coach, Mac McCallion, said: "Ifereimi is absolutely shattered and we share his sadness. A lot of tears have been shed in this camp."
Raiwalui, who plays his club rugby with Saracens, has for some weeks been one of the focal points of the increasingly bitter conflict over releasing players for the forthcoming tournament. All three Pacific unions - Fiji, Samoa and Tonga - have been badly affected by lack of availability, as have the Georgians and the Namibians, and a number of coaches have called on the International Rugby Board to take action.
But Saracens, in common with other teams, deny pressurising players to reject international calls. Indeed, they have repeatedly stated that, to the best of their knowledge, Raiwalui has retired from Test rugby. A club spokesman said yesterday: "This is for Simon to decide. His original decision was nothing to do with us, and this will not be our call either."
The likes of Wasps and Rotherham, as well as a number of Welsh and French clubs, have been singing from the same hymn sheet, but there are clear signs that individual IRB members are feeling the heat from those so-called "second-tier" nations who feel they are being disadvantaged by the salaries commonly on offer at the professional end of the game.
By way of reinforcing the fact that this issue is the World Cup's running sore, the argument between Namibia and one of South Africa's leading provincial teams, the Griquas, escalated yesterday.
Dave Waterston, the latest coach charged with the thankless task of putting the Namibian amateurs on a competitive par with the likes of Australia and Ireland, claimed the Griquas had contravened IRB regulations by playing a prop from Windhoek, Jané du Toit, in a Currie Cup match last Friday.
Du Toit, who is uncapped by Namibia but very much in demand for World Cup duty, is one of four South Africa-based players who declined to answer their country's call. While Namibia have yet to make a formal complaint to the IRB, it may not be long in coming.
The Argentinians - or rather, half of the Argentinians - were the first to arrive in Australia for the competition, which they will open with a match against the Wallabies on Friday week. Thanks to a shortage of business-class flights, the remaining 50 per cent will pitch up in Sydney tomorrow.Reuse content