Fiji have added to the discontent surrounding their fellow Pacific Islanders from Samoa by claiming the international rugby calendar will leave them underprepared to face England in next year’s World Cup.
The Fijians have been drawn to play in the showpiece opening match of the 2015 World Cup against England at Twickenham next September in a tournament predicted by the organisers to generate almost £1 billion for the UK economy.
But the team who lit up the 2007 competition with unforgettable performances against Wales and South Africa have played just four times against the world’s top four countries in the intervening period, and will meet none of the 10 Tier One unions in the 10 months remaining before the global event.
John McKee, Fiji’s head coach, and Seremaia Bai, their second longest- serving player, said they will never reach their full potential if the fixtures do not improve. “We just want the treatment to be fair,” said Bai, the 35-year-old utility back who was a centre in the Fiji team that knocked the Welsh out of the World Cup in Nantes in 2007 before pushing the eventual champions, South Africa, all the way in their quarter-final in Marseille.
“My hope was that we could have picked up from that year, and if we had got the support we needed we could have been much better in 2011, and by 2015 we’d have had more chance to win. But coming from a small island to a big country, it seems to me like everyone is ignoring us. I’ve been trying my best for 15 years and nothing has changed.”
The Samoan players’ beef was with their own home union, but Fiji say they are victims of a wider malaise: a calendar ruled by the established top countries, intent on making as much money as possible. “To perform well at the World Cup we need to play more Tier One internationals,” McKee told The Independent on Sunday. “We need to play to get ourselves to a standard. Instead, it looks like we’ll have the Pacific Nations Cup next July, comprising us, Canada, Japan, USA, Tonga and Samoa. That is followed by a camp in Fiji, with a Super 15 franchise coming for two games, then we arrive in England on 1 September.”
The only other match could be against a fellow Tier Two (the Pacific Nations Cup participants plus Georgia and Romania) team on 5 or 6 September. Over the same period England will tune up against Australia next week, France (three times), Ireland twice, Wales, Scotland, Italy and the Barbarians.
Every country playing a Test overseas have their expenses covered by the host union. This is common sense in one way, but it leaves the poorer countries eternally at a disadvantage. Wales banked around £4m from their 17-13 win over Fiji at the Millennium Stadium last weekend, but there is very rarely a reciprocal match in the South Seas, and no chance for Fiji to tip the financial seesaw in their direction.
“The sad thing is instead, over those years since 2007, we have just gone up and down,” said Bai. “It’s the same for a lot of the Tier Two nations. We know we can compete. There are Fijians all over the top European clubs, doing well. But if you compare the facilities and money we have got with what a Tier One nation has got, it’s way different.”
McKee said another past problem – obtaining release of players from their employers, the clubs – had not occurred on the current tour that started with a 40-15 loss to France and ended on Friday with a narrow 20-14 win over the USA in Brittany.
“The amount of Test matches we have overall is crazy,” added Bai. “I was talking with Brad Thorn [his fellow Leicester player and former All Black lock]. He played 47 Tests for New Zealand between 2008 and 2011; I’ve played 57 Tests in 14 years since 2000. How can we compete with the best when it’s like that?”
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