John McKee has just about covered the waterfront in his union career: the New Zealander knows what it is to coach teams in the south-western heartland of England and the far-flung wilds of rural Ireland; he can look back on stints in the win-or-bust world of French club rugby – he was on the staff at Clermont Auvergne when the Top 14 powerhouses still called themselves Montferrand – and on the high-performance Junior Wallaby production line in Australia. One way or another, he has seen it all.
At least, he thought he had. Then, last year, he put his name forward for perhaps the most mind-boggling job in the sport: not so much a coaching role as an assault on the senses – frustrating, bewildering and exhilarating in equal measure. In short, he volunteered to succeed the ousted Inoke Male as head coach of Fiji and, since taking over the running of the national team, he has witnessed something new, something barely believable, on a daily basis.
“You do see some exceptional things, working with these players,” he said following a short, snappy training session at Hazelwood, the spectacularly well-appointed London Irish base a couple of miles or so from Twickenham, where the men from the South Seas will face England on World Cup business in six evenings’ time. “Sometimes, your jaw hits the floor.
“As a coach, you often feel you want to curb the things these people can do on a rugby field. But when one of these magnificent athletes makes the kind of offload you didn’t really think was possible, you understand that you can’t restrict them completely. They have such tremendous potential, and they’re so open to ideas. There is nothing preconceived about their rugby. We have challenges, of course, but we know there are things we can do well against England – and intend to do well.”
McKee’s words were similar in tone to those uttered years ago by another hard-boiled Antipodean coach, John Connolly, during his time at Swansea, where he was exposed to the creative genius of the Wales international outside-half Arwel Thomas. “I’ve worked with the very best back home,” the Australian said. “Michael Lynagh, David Campese, the Ella brothers. And I can tell you that whenever I run a training session here, Arwel does something astonishing – something I’ve never seen before. The tragedy? I can’t pick him. He’s simply too small.”
This is not obviously a problem for McKee. Nemani Nadolo weighs in at almost 20st, while Waisea Nayacalevu measures 6ft 5in on the tale of the tape. So much for the wings. The forwards, many of whom run like backs and throw passes like the great French centres of old, are really big. The opening night of the World Cup on the old cabbage patch should be no end of fun.
If there is one vaguely normal-sized player who pretty much defines the Fijian spirit ahead of this tournament, it is the scrum-half Niko Matawalu. Known by some as the “squad clown” and by Nadolo as the “smart-arse of the team”, the 26-year-old energiser from the capital Suva has just completed a three-year stint with Glasgow, whom he helped to the Pro12 title last term. His next stop? Bath, the moneybags Premiership club prepared to pay top dollar for high-calibre personnel in pursuit of the club game’s glittering prizes.
Matawalu, a thrill-a-minute merchant with a deep-seated maverick streak, can be forgiven for wondering if he is suddenly inhabiting a parallel universe. “Back home in Fiji, we have no facilities,” he said. “When I look around here [he cast his eye across the green expanse of Hazelwood as he spoke] and feel the quality of the practice pitch beneath my feet, I’m amazed. And when I go to Bath, I’ll be training at what is basically a stately home.”
When McKee took charge of the national team, Matawalu was not alone in wondering what lay in store over the course of the World Cup build-up. More to the point, he was not at all sure that there would be a World Cup to build towards. “The first thing we had to do,” he said, “was win our qualifier against the Cook Islands. That was a nervous time for us. Seven-a-side rugby is the big thing in Fiji, the glitzy thing, but the 15-man game is still important to our people. It would have been horrible if we’d failed to find a way into this tournament.
“Once we did qualify, things improved quickly: when we won the Pacific Nations Cup in Canada last month, I think we were deserving of the title. That competition gave us confidence, our training has gone really well over the last few weeks and I know we are excited about the matches ahead. As our captain [the former Gloucester flanker Akapusi Qera] keeps saying, we may be in the ‘pool of death’ but we’re not here to make up the numbers. This is my first World Cup. Equally, it may be my last one. There is nothing for me to do but give it my all.”
Which bodes well, but Fiji are not heading into this global jamboree on a wing and a prayer – or, in their case, with some wings and some prayers, spoken together as a group, every day after training. “In the end,” McKee said, “performance reflects the level of preparation you put in, and there’s been a lot of energy spent in that area in recent weeks and months. We know our set piece – our scrum and our line-out – will be a critical factor in all our matches, because if those elements aren’t there, it doesn’t matter who you have in your back line. But we have a game plan and we’re putting plenty of focus on it.”
Samoa, the most consistent World Cup performers among the Pacific Islands sides, have made a late change to their propping contingent ahead of their opening game against the United States in Brighton a week tomorrow. Logovi’i Mulipola, the Leicester front-rower, is injured, so the long-serving Census Johnston has been called in from club duty with Toulouse.Reuse content