Stand in coach Gareth Baber has selected an exciting lineup for the Flying Fijians matchup with Spain on Saturday (Sunday FJT).
A side featuring 12 players from the Top 14, 4 each from the Gallagher Premiership and United Rugby Championship, 2 Pro D2 players, 1 from the Top 14 Academy and 1 from the NPC. Among them 7 Olympic Gold Medallists and 5 debutants.
Firstly we’ll acknowledge first time captain Waisea Nayacalevu. A veteran of 187 top class games for Stade Francais across the Top 14, European Challenge Cup and Heineken Cup. This will be his 26th test in a international career that dates back to June 2012 which also includes the 2015 and 2019 Rugby World Cups.
The 31 year old centre is the experience in the otherwise young and inexperienced backline. Outside of Nayacalevu, Setariki Tuicuvu has 3 tests to his name with the other 3 players on debut.
Both Baber and regular head coach Vern Cotter endorsed Waisea’s credentials as a captain. Cotter saying ” Waisea Nayacalevu has really accepted his role as a leader and he has quality players around him for guidance”. Baber added “Nayacalevu is an experienced player and knows what it means to play in white jersey” Furthermore “I suppose the element we need to do is create responsibility across the group. We are very much framed up to what we are doing for the future of Fiji 15s rugby that is going to take us through to the 2023 Rugby World Cup.”
This is not new from Baber. While in charge of the Sevens team he did create a leadership group that included Kalione Nasoko, Meli Derenalagi, Paula Dranisinukula and Jerry Tuwai. All players who shared the captaincy during Baber’s tenure.
While this match will largely be considered a warm up to the match against Wales, Fiji will be weary of their opponents who are looking to claim a big scalp. Spain’s form this year isn’t much to write home about with their sole victory against Portugal 25-11 but the onus is more on the Flying Fijians and the mindset they take into this match. They cannot afford another outing like the 2019 World Cup shemozzle against Uruguay.
They should expect nothing short of a fired up home team. On the Sevens circuit we’ve learnt that the Spanish are brave and will give it their all regardless of the opposition.
Spare a thought for the two Fijians playing for Spain tomorrow. Kalokalo Gavidi at 6 and Jerry Surumi Davoibaravi in the 23 jersey. What a thrill it must be to play against their countrymen and also some old friends.
Eroni Mawi’s impressive start to the 2021 Gallagher Premiership hasn’t gone unnoticed. The 25 year old has really lifted to a different level this year and has been rewarded with a starting jersey. He’ll pack into the scrum alongside the in form Sam Matavesi and another player doing good things this year in Mesake Doge.
At club level all 3 players are playing career best rugby and will look to carry that form into this tour. Doge has played every match this season for the Dragons in the URC while it’s no secret how we feel about Sam Matavesi who we believe is really entering that world class echelon.
Mawi and Doge will provide the power and grunt up front while Matavesi will keep busy at those breakdowns, going after the pill.
Brive lock Tevita Ratuva has shown solid form this season for his new club. He will be the main lineout jumper and could prove a handful for the Spanish defense. Look for him to create opportunities with his offloads in traffic. Temo Mayanavanua has quietly gone about his business for Lyon and has also built on his game in his second Top 14 season. Expect to see him charging into the line getting those tough, short carries.
In the two test matches against the All-Blacks, the lineouts were a mixed bag but overall good. Both locks are quite experienced so we should expect a good set piece given Matavesi’s lineout accuracy.
Like a fine wine
Leone Nakarawa has really shut the doubters up. His last performances for Fiji were outstanding considering the lack of matches he played prior. Now he comes into this tour with a full head of steam after an outstanding 2 months with Toulon. He may have reeled in the offloads a bit but is more selective now with his short passing and is as sharp as ever. At blindside flanker he will have freedom to roam. One part of his game that is often overshadowed by his incredible handling is his ability to cause turnovers and kill the ball.
Mesulame Kunavula reprises his role at openside. The Edinburgh lock has played the last 2 matches for his club, just in time to be ready for Fiji selection. He will provide that extra big body, carrying over the gain line getting Fiji on the front foot. Something he has done so well in his 3 tests dating back to his fine performance against Georgia in last years Autumn Nations Cup match.
Albert Tuisue has really come into his own the past 24 months. He would be one of the first players picked. He has cemented himself in the number 8 jersey for his London Irish club and also one of the more imposing players in the Premiership. He is one of Fiji’s best in the first All-Blacks test and will look to physically dominate the Spanish forwards.
The comeback kid
One man that we’re all excited to see back is the fleet-footed pocket rocket Niko Matawalu. His last test match was against Wales a week short of two years ago at the 2019 RWC. His last start at halfback for Fiji? Well you have to go back to June of 2017 against the Wallabies. That’s over 4 years without starting in his preferred position in a test match. He hasn’t lost any of his acceleration nor his footwork and will trouble the Spanish defenders around the ruck. His running game could open up channels for the bigger forwards to charge into half gaps.Embed from Getty Images
We haven’t seen Ben Volavola since round 3 of the Top 14. He will again be the man in which most the attacking plays revolves around. With a quicker wing pairing at his disposal to start the match we could see more attacking kicks from the 39 test match veteran. His general play and strategic kicking game has improved over the years and will come under heavy pressure from the Spanish defense trying to shut him down before the ball travels out to the bigger threats.
New look backline
Baber has not wasted any time giving his new boys a run. His Olympic Sevens trio of Aminiasi Tuimaba, Jiuta Wainiqolo and Vilimoni Botitu will start in their maiden tests.
Both wingers provide some real pace on the edges and both have a knack of running through tackles. If they are given a bit of space they could really get the scoreboard moving for Fiji. They are both riding a wave after having incredible years and will not be short of confidence. Wainiqolo has proven a real threat when returning the ball for Toulon. Look for Volavola and Setariki Tuicuvu to link with the flyer on kick returns.Embed from Getty Images
Speaking of Tuicuvu he has played at fullback, wing and lately centre for Brive in the Top 14 this season. His speed and footwork could be a real threat for Fiji on second phase plays. While Kini Murimurivalu was a power packet who possessed a great offload, Tuicuvu offers a change up in pace and a smaller more agile back to change things up from the bigger, powerful Fiji backline.
Vilimoni Botitu has been excellent this year. One of the form centres of the Top 14 in fact. Had it not been for the Olympic Games, he would have made his debut against the All-Blacks. The skilful and talented second five will be one of the players to watch over the three test matches. There has been talk of starting him at fly-half and even fullback so we will keep a keen eye on his progress, especially his combinations with Volavola and his outside backs.Embed from Getty Images
He is a changeup from test regular Levani Botia who is a bottle of power and aggression. Botitu has more subtlety to his game and is a natural ball player. He will certainly challenge for the starting jersey going forward. Expect him to create room with ability to stand in the tackle and offload one handed. He compliment’s the powerful running of Nayacalevu who will be out for a big showing as captain of the side.
An interesting bench by Baber. He hasn’t selected a backup scrumhalf indicating Matawalu plays out the 80 minutes or they could employ the same tactic they used in the second All-Blacks test match and move Tuicuvu to halfback if needed. If this does happen he has a few options for fullback including Volavola, Botitu and even Wainiqolo.
Stade Francais Academy player Henry Spring has been transformed into a hooker and gets his first taste of international rugby. He will replace Matavesi most likely in the last 20 minutes. Spring is a bigger body and a good prospect for the future. Hopefully this test series will also mean Stade Francais sign him to a full time contract sooner rather than later.
The rest of the bench is filled with experienced campaigners and some of our most damaging players. Firstly the prop substitutes Peni Ravai and Lee Roy Atalifo. Fiji lose nothing when they are brought on for Mawi and Doge. Going forward we could see Ravai used off the bench as an impact player. His athleticism and mobility could be a real handful late in the match but we expect him to reprise his starting loose head role against Wales.Embed from Getty Images
Api Ratuniyarawa is another feel good story coming out of this tour. The 35 year old Northampton lock has turned back the clock this season and playing some of his best rugby for the Saints. His selection comes as no surprise. A much deserved call-up. We could see both our locks replaced with debutant Masivesi Dakuwaqa moving into flanker later in the game. This will move Nakarawa, who is more than capable of playing out the 80 back into lock.
A Bus, Tractor and Sledgehammer walk into a bar, no it’s not a bad joke, it’s the Fiji bench. Viliame Mata has been one of the best players to start the United Rugby season. He’s been putting up impressive numbers for Edinburgh and will be another player to watch. One of the best number 8 rotations the Flying Fijians have ever had at their disposal with Tuisue and Mata.
Spain get no reprieve with Josua Tuisova and Eroni Sau rounding off a physical, imposing bench. Tuisova will be used as replacement for centre or winger while Sau will replace one of the starting wingers.
The Flying Fijians are building amazing depth. Depth we haven’t seen the likes of before. This game is just another on the road to what looks like Fiji’s biggest ever World Cup campaign in 2023. Some of our most exciting players will make their debuts this weekend so we wish them all the best and wish the Flying Fijians our very best. We will be praying for you boys.
Don’t miss out
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Dedicated Flying Fijians Page
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Join in the conversation
That wraps up our preview on the Fiji vs Spain match. Join in the conversation below. Drop a comment, tell us what you think of the team and who you’re looking forward to watching.
The match will be live on FBC Sports for those of you in Fiji and if you’re outside of Fiji you can watch live by streaming on the World Rugby website at 3am on Sunday morning. Click here to view