Flying Fijians Northern Tour – A closer look

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A big news day in Fiji Rugby. First the revelation former Fiji Sevens coach Gareth Baber and a whole new support staff, would stand in for Vern Cotter and the regular Fiji coaching panel for the Flying Fijians Northern Tour. Then the earlier than expected naming of the 28 (not 32) man squad.

It’s no secret that the team would be made up solely of Northern Hemisphere based players. But the coaching staff, now that is something no one saw coming. If we turn our attention back to last years Autumn Nations Cup, you can understand why the FRU have chosen to go down this path.

FRU Ceo John O’Connor on the decision – “We could have made arrangements for management and players to travel to for the Northern tour but we were not able to guarantee their return with the unavailability of MIQ (managed Isolation and quarantine) spots in Australia and New Zealand.

“We could not take the risk of players and staff being stuck in the Northern Hemisphere in 2022 as such we made the decision not to use anyone from the Southern Hemisphere for the tour.

A temporary coaching panel, and a world class one at that, is a much better option than a potential repeat of last year.

The Coaches

Here’s a brief look at the coaching team;

  • Head Coach Gareth Baber – Former Fiji Sevens coach
  • Assistant Coach Duncan Hodge – Club Centurion at Edinburgh. Former Scottish international and also long time assistant coach at Edinburgh. Left in August of this year. Also assistant coach to Vern Cotter whilst coaching Scotland. In charge of backs for this tour.
  • Assistant Coach Rory Best – Former Ireland, British and Irish Lions captain. Retired 2 years ago.  Currently with Seattle Seawolves in the MLR. Will oversee forwards.
  • Assistant Coach Richie Gray – Former Springboks and Scotland coach. Was with the Flying Fijians for 2020 Autumn Nations Cup. In charge of rucks and contact area.
  • Lead S&C Thomas McArdle – Strength and conditioning for Wasps first team & Newport Dragons Academy. Also a sports scientist.
  • Physio Matt Lee – Head Physio at Northampton Saints
  • Pyhsio Brian Downey – Physio under John McKee at RWC 2015
  • Physio Osian Griffiths  – No info available
  • Lead Analyst Matt Johnstone – World Rugby Sevens Analyst
  • Remote Analyst Josh Vuto – Video Analyst for Fiji Rugby
  • Doctor Clive Monkley – Premiership Rugby matchday doctor
  • Manager Chris Thomson – Was General Manager for the Fijian Drua in the NRC
  • Assistant Manager Alifereti Vakacokovanua – Is part of the Fiji Rugby setup

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The Squad

Firstly I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to pick a few players on the fringe of selection. Guys who could be called upon in future and if ever needed they have a bit of experience to call on.

I will mention them as I go through the positions. There are a lot of quality players who have missed out and a few veterans who are playing really well at their clubs. Sadly we may not see them in a Flying Fijians jersey again.

Upfront

5 props were named, 3 tightheads and 2 looseheads. The coaches are pretty confident in Peni Ravai and Eroni Mawi seeing out the tour. Ravai has come leaps and bounds in the past 24 months. He was one of our best against the All-Blacks in July. Eroni Mawi’s form at Saracens is really exciting. To hold his own in a team laden with International forwards is quite impressive and a testament to his hard work and commitment to developing his game. Should injury strike, Sunia Vola of Stade Nicois in the Nationale competition is the most likely to receive the SOS call. Outside of him there’s Ratu Vatubua of Cognac who are not travelling too well, sitting in 13th spot in the Nat 1.

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At tighthead we can expect Mesake Doge to be the starter. He has continued his good form from Brive into the Flying Fijians into the Dragons in the United Rugby Championship. Coming off the bench you have Flying Fijians veteran Lee Roy Atalifo or if Baber opts for the younger and in-form Luke Tagi, currently doing good things at Provence. He has played every match this season in the Pro D2 and we’re really starting to see some of the potential we all know he has.

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At hooker Sam Matavesi is at the top of his game for Northampton. I mentioned in the Premiership Round 3 review how he has lifted his game to a whole new level. He is in my opinion world class. Just constantly on and around the ball and just keeps working all game. He will start with Peniami Narisia coming off the bench later in the match. The only other hooker on that side of the planet is backrower Henry Spring who is being transformed into a 2 at Stade Francais.

At the moment we’re fortunate there are no injuries in this department because should 1 or 2 players go down it’s looking really thin.

Tall Timber

4 locks have been named. Talisman Leone Nakarawa, who will start along with incumbent Temo Mayanavanua. Tevita Ratuva will be the man to come off the bench and provide impact late in the match.

London Irish number 8 Albert Tuisue has been named at lock as he was prior to the All-Blacks tests but will most likely start at 8 or come off the bench in the 19 or 20 jersey. Either way he has to be in the side. He just keeps getting better. London Irish Director of Rugby Declan Kidney told The Telegraph only this week that Tuisue; “He’s blossomed really, hasn’t he?” and goes on to mention “If he tells you to do something, you never have to question it, it always gets done. He had a lot of physicality but he’s mixing that now with better ball sense, better understanding. There is more growth in him. I think we are just in the prime of his career.”

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Two players who I thought were playing well, were probably unlikely to be named but deserve a mention at least is Tevita Cavubati and Api Ratuniyarawa. Tex has been very consistent this season for Perpignan in the Top 14 and he has really nailed down that starting position. He was sidelined most of last year with injury but seems to be back at his best now at his new club.

Api Ratuniyarawa is another. At 35 he has managed to hold down his starting position at Northampton who have only lost 1 match this season. It could be we don’t see them playing test matches for Fiji again especially with the young talent available but they have provided great service over the past decade and should not be forgotten.

Back Rowers

Johnny Dyer picks himself. His first match against the All-Blacks stands as one of the best performances this season and despite his club side sitting at the bottom of the Top 14, he has been all class to start the season doing what he does best, going after that ball.

Peceli Yato will most likely man the openside flanker position. Together with Dyer they form what is our strongest flanker duo. Mesulame Kunavula started his season for Edinburgh over the weekend and will most likely be the man to come off the bench. They could opt for debutant Masivesi Dakuwaqa who has played at flanker in every match he has played this season for Montpellier.

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Number 8 is interesting. Albert Tuisue or Viliame Mata? Either way you would think both are in our strongest lineup. Due to injuries we haven’t seen the “Tailevu Tractor” since the 2019 World Cup against Wales. His start to the 2021 United Rugby season is as good as any player in the competition. Man of the match in Edinburgh’s last outing. He really is playing the kind of rugby that saw him awarded the Guinness Pro 14 Players player of the year award in 2019.

A back row blend of Dyer, Yato, Mata, Tuisue and Kunavula is as good as it gets. Sprinkle in a bit of shark God Dakuwaqa and it’s a scary prospect for any side.

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Unlucky to miss out is Kitione Kamikamica and Lekima Tagitagivalu. Kamikamica has been in solid form for Brive and has done nothing to hurt his chances. Pau’s Tagitagivalu has also been one of our best players not to have played test rugby over the past 2 seasons. He’s an athletic, mobile option with a thirst for contact. He may be overlooked now but surely test Rugby awaits the 25 year old in the future.

Another player I will mention is 21 year old Exeter number 8 Rusiate Tuima, the nephew of former Fiji skipper Akapusi Qera. He has been part of the England junior sides and would be a great prospect for the future.

Halves

No surprises with Ben Volavola reprising his role as the attack General and Frank Lomani his partner. Niko Matawalu makes his return to the test arena and will offer a dynamic, running threat later in the game. Vilimoni Botitu has been included as a centre/fly half which almost certainly puts him in the 22 jersey as cover for Volavola or one of the starting centres. The Olympic Gold Medallist is one of the Top 14 form centres and will look to carry that into his first venture with the Flying Fijians.

Unlucky to miss out is Newcastle’s 22 year old halfback Cameron Nordli-Kelemeti. He has played every match this season coming off the bench for the Falcons. A nippy halfback who thinks on the fly and has a big future ahead of him. Whether or not he would opt to play for Fiji is another thing altogether.

Centres

La Rochelle centre partners Eneriko Buliruarua and Levani Botia will start at centre providing all goes well in the next two weeks. Botia does have an injury cloud hanging over him but will skipper the side if he pulls through ok. Buliruarua especially has been in very good and will be a real threat out wide.

Waisea Nayacalevu is there as cover and if he doesn’t start at centre he will most likely be in the 23 jumper. The other option is Josua Tuisova who has always been at wing for Fiji but is a centre for Lyon. The Top 14 player of the year nominee from last season has just returned from injury and should he get through the next couple games will take a wing spot if not centre.

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Two players I would have liked to see in the side are Adrea Cocagi from Castres and Adrian Sanday of Oyonnax. Cocagi offers size and a real power game. He’s been quietly going about his business but has been consistently good for Castres this season. Sanday on the other hand is a classy player with silky skills and a great turn of speed. He offers fullback cover and has been in red hot form this year as he has been the past 18 months.

Also missing and you would think next in line ahead of Cocagi and Sanday in selection is hitman Jale Vatubua who also has hit form for Pau. He’s been relegated to the bench for his club side the last couple weeks but prior to that had a man of the match performance.

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Wingers

Eroni Sau will take a wing position with the other wing spot most likely Tuisova. Depending on who is available for each test we will see Gold Medallists Aminiasi Tuimaba or Jiuta Wainiqolo make thier debuts. Wainiqolo has already played for the Flying Fijians but the match against the Barbarians wasn’t an official test match therefore he is yet to make his international debut in 15s.

Tuimaba has been in really good form for Pau. He recently signed an extension with the club as they look to lock his talents up. It’s exciting thinking about what both him and Wainiqolo bring to the side.

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The big surprise here is the omission of Filipo Nakosi. He has been in solid form for Castres and although yet to score this season has set up quite a few tries with his bullocking runs and classy offloads.

Also missing is Nemani Nadolo but as I understand he has commitments keeping him from being part of this tour.

Tuicuvu takes fullback position

Kini Murimurivalu who had just played his first match of the season for Leicester has not been selected giving Setariki Tuicuvu the starting fullback position. The only other option is Botitu.

Tuicuvu has only played two matches for Brive this season, 1 at fullback and 1 on the wing. His last match in round 4 of the Top 14. He offers speed and footwork from the back and has the skills to compliment Volavola.

I mentioned Sanday earlier but the other player I was hoping to see is Wame Naituvi of Mont de Marsan. A gifted runner of the ball who can play fullback or wing. He has the potential to be much more than a Pro D2 winger such is his talent.

Unprecedented Depth

On our database we have 39 players contracted in the Top 14 with another 12 in their Academies giving us a total of 50 if you take out French Internationals Virimi Vakatawa and Alivereti Raka.

That kind of depth is unheard of for a tier 2 nation in one of the leading competitions in the world. And if you throw in the in the 29 Pro D2 players that blows it out to near 80 players at the Flying Fijians disposal. Not to mention another handful of the 23 Nationale players who are much better than a tier 3 competition. That’s before we even look at who we have in the URC and Premiership.

On top of all of that just think what our depth will look like a year from now with the Fijian Drua already have played a full season of Super Rugby. It’s unprecedented levels of depth, and quality too.

What’s ahead

Before the team assemble on the 31st of this month, they have another 2 matches to get through. So there could be a few changes if injuries or suspensions rear their ugly heads. No less than 6 days later they suit up against the Spanish in Madrid before a showdown with old rivals Wales in Cardiff on the 15th of November before finishing the tour 5 days later against Georgia at a venue yet to be decided.

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Final thought

It is a very strong squad but more importantly players that are in-form. The only missing players I can think of that would definitely be there is Semi Radradra and Nemani Nadolo. I am very excited about this tour, excited abut this forward pack and especially the match against Wales. The first game against Spain is only 6 days after they get together but then it’s an 8 day break. Chances of winning? I think there’s every chance the Flying Fijians come out of this 3-0.

Join in the conversation

What do you think of the FRU decision to establish a new coaching panel for the tour? What do you think of the squad? Is there anyone you wanted to see in the side? Join in the conversation and leave a comment below.

Also be sure to check out the new Rakaviti homepage with all the latest news in Fijian Rugby

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