I must confess to being a big fan of the Fiji Islands. The sun, the sand, and calming sound of palm trees waving in the ocean breeze. Time ‘stands still’ and while enjoying the visit, I missed one of the locals favourite pastimes. Rugby Union. Fiji have come far since the 1987 Rugby World Cup and today that nations love of Rugby has created it’s own mini-tourism sector.
Fiji have come far since 1987 Rugby World Cup
Rugby has a place in the hearts of many nations, including my own country New Zealand. World Rugby official record in fact states that the game is played by 100 member nations and 17 associate members. A leading rugby nation, the Fiji Rugby Union take it very much to heart. ‘Always have’ from what we have all learnt about this proud rugby-mad country and through enthusiasm and an affinity for the team sport, tourist has grown too with events and competitions like the Coral Coast Sevens tournament.
In Fiji, every village cherishes the game and while they might not have a full rugby field or even more than one or two balls to play with, they still put up a set of posts and the kids and families enjoy games all year round. Arrive on any Island, and besides a runway for charter planes, there is a rugby field and since the game was first introduced, the locals have shown a natural affinity with this team sport.
BOTH FORMS OF THE GAME
They exceed at both forms of the game: Rugby Union (15 men) and Sevens Rugby, where a reputation has grown that has roots built on a game in Christchurch New Zealand. At Lancaster Park on 27 May, this match was played during the 1987 inaugural Rugby World Cup. In that match, we saw two sides face-off and while the side who triumphed by 74-13 was ultimately crowned the very best side at that tournament, they both participated in a great occasion remembered by many Fijian Islands rugby fans today.
Rugby can do that, it can bring people together. Quite literally if it is a popular game [shoulder to shoulder] which this game was. At games so well patronized, you get a rugby-united understanding between fans. Both sets agree that the game is “the winner on the day”. No matter if you are wearing All Black or the White and Black of the Fiji Rugby Union, they each applaud the players and it etches a memory in time.
On that sunny Canterbury afternoon, the two sides played one of the earliest encounters between these countries [playing a total of 5 times, as of 2015] 13 tries were scored on this day, which showed an example of open, entertaining rugby. Yes, twelve of those tries were from the home team, but a consolation try to the big Lock Jioji Cama epitomised a spirit for the game that would hold them well on the International scene ever since.
For the record, Fiji have appeared at six Rugby World Cups and won nine games. Fiji have come far though. Their best accomplishment has been to reach the QuarterFinals at three separate events, and even if they have never progressed further, they have given it their all ever since.
Most recently in 2015 they were crowned Pacific Nations Cup champions. After a series of matches including a wonderful final against their old foe Samoa, Fiji won that tournament 39-29. A great warm-up to the major event of the Rugby World Cup held in England, Fiji will also play a friendly match against Canada on September 6th in London.
And while those results in the fifteen a man game have been terrific, they helped establish the International popularity of the much faster seven man [Sevens] game.
That form of the game may have some origins in ‘festival football’ and Invitational games where they could not collect 15, or ten men to play a game, so a quicker seven-a-side game took off. By the 1980’s many nations were visiting this side of the world, Auckland and Queensland tournaments leading players to visit Suva, Lautoka and cities like Apia and Nuku’alofa.
Sometimes thought of as any ‘easy’ game in the past, a warm-up game to the 15 man code, the tall, athletic Fijians were perfectly suited and would challenge any team. They established a strong support and are popularly known as the ‘Flying Fijians’.
They quickly came to equal many of the leading sides; England, Australia, France and New Zealand soon came to respect that side and when annual tournaments like the Hong Kong 7’s established television publicity and major coverage, the best exponents of the game (in a similar way to the West Indies cricket team) were leading the competition, not just making it up.
That competition has now become a regular component of the sport, especially in Sevens Rugby. As mentioned, the Coral Coast Sevens are an extremely popular festival, with European and North American teams now wanting to participate; a mini tourism sector has been established, with benefits in hospitality revenue and to the local markets.
Besides periods of isolation due to political upheaval, you now regularly find this team at the apex of the professional game, and in 2015 they will need to be focused on both forms of the game. With success in the World Rugby Sevens Series, and the Pacific Nations Cup title, the Fijian side are drawn for the opening RWC match on September 18th, at Twickenham [against hosts England]
Many fans will be attending that game, or the other three Pool A games and many many more will be avidly watching their RWC exploits world-wide.
ROAD TO RIO
Whatever the result from that World Cup, it will only be one of the prestige tournaments over the next twelve months that Fiji will compete at.
They have qualified as the top ranked team for the 2016 Rio Summer Olympic Games in Sevens Rugby competition. This is the first ever occasion for this exciting brand of rugby to appear at an Olympic Games, and Fiji go into the event as current title holders of the World Rugby Sevens Series.
In this form of the game, some say they are perfectly suited as the ‘Islands Style’ is to keep the ball alive and to advance the football between all players. As children, they learn to move the ball and to take the running option. All positions are encouraged to pass the ball, so from the village to the theater of global sport, they are taught to play with a smile on their face.
For purists of the games, who might normally recall Lions tours of New Zealand, or victories by England at home as ‘rugby lore’ those purists will all raise an eye and give a wry smile when they think of Fijian rugby. Not because they are minnows, or if they have never challenged the ‘bigger’ teams; they certainly have and on numerous occasions. No, they will recall a nation who added something to the game, and not all can proudly say that.
If Argentina have added Latin Flair, or Ireland their Gaelic passion, then I honestly believe that the ‘Flying Fijians’ have brought some a sense of enjoyment along with that fearsome tackling.
Yes, Fiji have come far since the 1987 Rugby World Cup. Over 700 players have represented that nation since their first ever International match versus close Island nation Samoa. In that time, a heritage was born and for the benefit of the sport as a whole. From that original game and up to, and including 1987, it was the making of the Fiji Islands Rugby nation.
A strong history is behind them, and in England come the 2015 Rugby World Cup, and then leading into the 2016 Rio Summer Olympic games, they will look to write new history in this sport. To become the very first winner in Sevens Rugby on the International Olympic stage would be a sensational result. And with players who can run for the entire match, who all pass the ball with either hand and that fearsome tackling, they are early favourites by all counts.
But the All Black Sevens team would certainly like to make their own history too. May the best team win.