The Rise of the Fijian Number 8

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Fijian rugby is known around the world for being powerful, creative, fast, free flowing and attractive. Over the last half-decade we have seen an explosion of talented Fijian forwards all plying their trade for clubs in the major competitions on either side of the globe.

In this article we will look at five elite Fijian players who are showing these qualities around the world from the base of the scrum.

Number 8’s Viliame Mata, Nathan Hughes, Isi Naisarani, Pita Sowakula and Hoskins Sotutu. All are phenomenal players with an array of skills. We will look at their similarities but also what sets them apart from the rest.

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Some of our talented up and comers

The Flying Fijians are well stocked in the number 8 and flanker positions. Players like Johnny Dyer, Mosese Voka and Albert Tuisue are just a few of the names who are now playing professionally overseas, all with test experience and all versatile.

The number 8 positon

Traditionally, the number 8 has had to possess a number of skills and attributes. Due to the nature of the position, the player must be physical and dynamic but must also have the ability to deliver a high-quality pass or off load out of the tackle and have impeccable timing.

Speed over short distance is good for ball carrying and defending. Effective tackling in open play and from the base of the scrum are essential. Creating opportunities for others and providing support are also important contributions that the number 8 must make.

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One of the most important skills for a number 8, is being able to control the ball at the back of the scrum going forwards…or backwards. Many number 8’s can be useful in the lineout as a lifter or a third jumper which creates more attacking options for the team.

Occasionally number 8’s have been known for showing moments of brilliance through physicality or skill. Remember when legendary All Black number 8 Zinzan Brooke, dropped the goal against England near to the halfway line in the 1995 Rugby World Cup semi-final.

Pita Sowakula

Pita ‘Gus’ Sowakula came to Rugby Union from Basketball. He was part of the Fijian national Basketball team in 2013. He continued to play Basketball in New Zealand until his move to Rugby Union in 2016. He now plays for the Taranaki Bulls and Waikato Chiefs and in a relatively short time has made quite an impact.

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He originally played on the wing which probably explains his speed. He then moved to the back row and has not looked out of place. He is a tackling machine and rarely misses. For a big man, he wins more than his fair share of turnovers. He offers dynamism and speed from the scrum and as expected from a former basketball player, he is a good ball handler and can offload well out of the tackle.

Nathan Hughes

Nathan Hughes was spotted at a young age in Fiji for his rugby potential and received a scholarship to Kelston Boys High School in Auckland. He went on to play for Auckland before moving to England to join London Wasps, he now plays for the Bristol Bears.

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He was eligible to play for Fiji and Samoa and in 2016 became eligible to play for England based on residency rules. England were looking for a player to rival the physicality and forward power possessed by Billy Vunipola and Hughes fitted the bill. He gained his first England cap against South Africa in 2016 at Twickenham. Like Mata, Hughes can play lock or any of the back-row positions.

He may not have the speed of some other number 8’s, but his strength and ball carrying capabilities will often get him over the gain line. Add to this his destructive tackling and he brings an extra physicality to the team.

Isi Naisarani

Isi Naisarani is another Fijian player of exceptional quality who is enhancing the global game with the Melbourne Rebels and Australia. He is another rangy runner with a turn of pace. Again, he can off load the ball with the best and will often be on the ball carrier’s shoulder to run a great support line.  

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When he tackles, he has the ability to wrap up the player in possession of the ball and due to his strength and height, can hold up a player to force the turnover. He is a very good lineout operator and gives the Rebels and Australia that extra option in a crucial area of the game.

Naisarani has been one of the Wallabies best since making his debut in 2019 and his 2020 form for the Rebels indicates that the Naitasiri native is only getting started.

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Hoskins Sotutu

Hoskins Sotutu is the player that everyone is talking about… and everyone wants! He has represented New Zealand at U20 level however, he is also qualified to play for Fiji and England through his parents. He is only 21 years old but is already a fine player. How good he could potentially become in the coming years is frightening.

He has just signed a two-year deal with the Auckland Blues so the likelihood is he will play for the All Blacks especially now that Kieran Read has retired. He is a fine athlete and possesses an all-round game including kicking from hand.

He brings a physical presence but also has speed and skill to make him the complete player. He’s young and appears to be humble and could go on to become a great All Black.

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Viliame Mata

Arguably the best of the lot is Flying Fijians very own Viliame Mata. The Tailevu native came from a Rugby League background and was part of the celebrated Fijian Olympic gold medal winning 7’s squad in 2016. He has since moved to the 15-man game with Fiji and Scottish Pro14 team Edinburgh.

After the 2018/2019 season he was awarded the Pro14 players player of the year award and it’s easy to see why. He can play in the second row or back row and delivers a mix of pace and power. His ability to off load out of the tackle and create opportunities for others is exceptional.

He looks like a lock and has a naturally long stride which makes him very difficult to bring down. This also makes him deceptively fast. Mata is already amongst some of the best number 8’s to ever play for Fiji and potentially could become one of Fiji’s greatest ever forwards.

5 World Class Number 8’s

The five players in this article are all products of Fijian rugby in one way or another. They are all quality players who have attained international status or are about to.

They are all unique and bring their own abilities to the game whether it’s through skill, physicality, or mentality. I think though that there is something that ties them altogether. They play rugby the way it was intended to be played. Fast, creative, aggressive, instinctively and skilfully and without inhibition.

This is the Fijian way. Although not all of them play for Fiji, they are each adding to the game and showing the way it should be played around the world.

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