It’s a bit of a lull period in rugby, but that lull was broken with an almighty bang with the news that the Flying Fijians had beaten the Maori All Blacks for the first time since 1957.
With the northern hemisphere season now in its close season and the southern hemisphere getting ready for the Rugby Championship starting next weekend, the Fijians, playing their first match of the 2019 season, chose the perfect time to make their statement.
Worthy win over Maori All Blacks
Beating the Maori is not something many teams do. The last team to do so were the French Barbarians, 19-15 in Bordeaux in 2017. So Saturday’s 27-10 win by Fiji is not something to be sniffed at.
True, the game was in Suva, but John McKee’s men played exceptionally well. The test will be whether they can reproduce that form in the return clash on Saturday in Rotorua.
However, it was not just the win, but the manner of it, that will sound a warning for Australia and Wales, the two big guns in Fiji’s pool at the Rugby World Cup in just over two months’ time.
Watch the video below: Fiji played with an audacious mix of simple, text book rugby and outrageous flamboyance and offloading continuity.
They scored some beautiful trademark tries, specifically the second in the 33rd minute and the one in the 47th minute.
Maybe the Maori were tired; but so were Fiji, as McKee had made them go through the fearsome sand dune sessions at Sigatoka the previous week.
And remember: the last time Fiji took the field was last November, when they also created history by beating France for the first time, 21-14, and in Paris at that.
The Flying Fijians – increasingly professional
These wins showed that this is increasingly a Fiji team full of players benefiting from playing professional rugby far from home, in the UK and France, specifically, with all the professionalism that that instills into them.
The most obvious improvement is Fiji’s forward play. They are much more focused on this aspect these days, and boast an exceptional crop of big, athletic men who can handle like the sevens exponents many of them are and who can run like the wind. But they are also not neglectful of the dark arts of tight-forward play, as they have often been accused of in the past.
In fact, the first signs of this forward improvement were seen at the 2015 World Cup, when Fiji’s scrums and line-outs were of a much higher standard than usual and they held their own against England, Wales and Australia. But the problem in that tournament was that their back play was below par and was hardly sighted.
More strength in depth
Four years on, they have consolidated their forward play, while the traditional Fijian strengths on open play and running rugby are closer to full swing and often in fine fettle.
They now have a back line able to offer the likes of Semi Radradra, Josua Tuisova, augmented by Waisea Nayacalevu, Alifereti Veitokani and Eroni Sau, to go with the now-established halfback combination of Frank Lomani and Ben Volavola.
There is also a good bank of depth and experience in the squad, with the likes of Patrick Osborne, Nemani Nagusa, Vereniki Goneva, Peceli Yato and Tevita Cavubati all part of the squad.
So will Fiji be able to pull off a massive upset in Japan?
Current form, and history, suggest that they will — especially if they manage to repeat the trick against the Maori All Blacks this weekend. That match will be their last before the Pacific Nations Cup and then a final World Cup warm-up against Tonga, in Sydney on 31 August, before the RWC starts on 20 September.
Benign RWC fixture list
At the World Cup, Fiji have been treated relatively kindly, as far as their 2019 World Cup fixtures go.
They kick off with the big one, against Australia, on 21 September. If they can catch the Wallabies on an off day, anything could happen.
More importantly, Fiji then have a four-day break only but fortunately then face the pool’s weakest team, Uruguay, against whom they are likely to field a few of their now high-quality reserves.
The Fijians then get a full seven days to recharge and recover before facing the tough and rugged, but beatable, Georgia.
And they comes the other big one in the group: Wales, whom they play six days after playing Georgia.
This will be the key one, especially as Wales would have played Australia in their previous match and could need to win this one to get to the quarter-finals.
On form, there is no reason Fiji won’t run Australia and Wales close, if not beat them.
History beckons — once per decade
But if history is any guide, the Flying Fijians are due a huge World Cup performance.
They gave a good account of themselves in the first RWC, in 1987, where they lost to France in an entertaining quarterfinal.
They then flopped badly in 1991, finishing last in the pool, before not even qualifying in 1995.
The Islanders then had a decent tournament in 1999, losing to England in the playoffs before the quarterfinals made.
They were probably authors of their own demise in 2003, losing their crucial pool match to Scotland 22-20 in a match they should have won. That saw them finishing third and pipped by the Scots.
Fiji then had their best tournament in 2007, when they almost beat eventual champions South Africa in an exhilarating quarterfinal.
The team they beat to get to that stage? Wales. So Fiji know they’ve done it before.
The Fijians then went into a bit of a form slump in 2011 – including being hammered 66-0 by the Welsh. They held their own in 2015 but didnt set anything alight either, losing out in a very tough pool that also contained hosts England, who also didn’t make it, plus Australia and Wales — the two sides that did.
So if cycles mean anything, Fiji seem to have one good World Cup per decade, and with this being the last year of the 2010s, then it may be time to put some money on Fiji.
After all, they’re on a pretty good run, rugby wise, with the recent wins adding more gloss to their Olympics and World Sevens Series titles.