Troubled Fiji back on course  for World Cup rehabilitation


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The Independent Online

The organisers of next year’s home World Cup were in full “500 days to go” mode at Twickenham, announcing details of ticket sales, trophy tour dates and volunteering programmes.

But perhaps most importantly, the International Rugby Board chief executive, Brett Gosper, indicated that Fiji, that most troubled of sporting countries, would be back in everyone’s good books in time to play in the tournament – a relief, given that they are scheduled to be England’s first opponents.

All direct cash support from the governing body was frozen in January due to serious concerns over the Fijian union’s performance in a variety of areas, including governance and financial control.

There have also been problems with the Pacific island’s seven-a-side team, which will not be at this summer’s Commonwealth Games, despite being the biggest box-office attraction in the sport.

Fiji’s suspension from the Commonwealth, imposed as a result of the country’s military coup in 2006, was partially lifted earlier this year in recognition of progress towards a restoration of democracy, but the draw for the sevens competition had already been made and there was no room for adjustment.

Happily for all concerned, there is an easing of the tension created by recent events. The Fijians have decided against staging a boycott of the Commonwealth Games across all sports, although they remain bitterly upset at the exclusion of their pride and joy, the sevens team.

As for World Cup participation – their final qualification match against the Cook Islands takes place in Lautoka next month and they are expected to win by a landslide – Gosper said moves were afoot to smooth their path towards the England game in 16 months’ time.

“We did suspend funding for Fiji, but there have been meetings recently and that suspension will soon be lifted,” he confirmed. “They’ve taken significant strides towards putting their house in order and their finances are in much better shape, not least because they’ve just agreed a big  sponsorship deal.

“It’s not as if we’ve taken money away from them; it was frozen, and it was always our intention to release the funds once the necessary improvements were made.”

Fiji may well suffer a loss soon, however – and a damaging one, too. Nathan Hughes, the No 8 from Lautoka who has made such an impact with Wasps over the last few weeks, is currently weighing up his options at international level and there is no guarantee he will commit himself to his homeland, who would certainly pick him for their European tour this autumn, if not for the Cook Islands game. Under IRB regulations, Hughes will be eligible for England in 2016. “It’s a decision for him,” Gosper said.

Wasps, who face Stade Français in a home-and-away play-off for the final place in next season’s inaugural European Rugby Champions Cup, will host the ambitious Parisians at Adams Park a week on Sunday, with the return leg the following Saturday.