Josh Matavesi is backing Fiji to make a major impact in the new Eight Nations tournament despite the squad never having trained under new coach Vern Cotter and nearly a year having passed since they played a test fixture.
While the odds seem stacked against the Fijians, who have been drawn in a four-team pool with France, Scotland and Italy in the new tournament being played over the four weekends from 13 November to 6 December, Bath centre Matavesi knows all about the world-class talent available to Cotter.
The former Scotland and Montpellier head coach will hold his first training camp with the squad in France on October 25, following what has become a “ normal” preparation for Fiji. This will be Fiji’s fourth camp to be held in France and recognises the fact that the majority of their professional players are based in Europe.
The training camp held prior to the 2019 Rugby World Cup featured 18 players based in France and 14 from the UK and Cotter will name a similar squad next week.
Cotter, who replaced John McKee in January, can call upon stars including Semi Radradra, who scored a brilliant solo try for Bristol in their big European Challenge Cup win over Dragons, Glasgow’s Leone Nakawara, Viliame Mata at Edinburgh, Leicester’s Kini Murimuvalu, Peceli Yato at Clermont, La Rochelle’s Levani Botia and Joshua Tuisova at Lyon. The wide range of talent available to Cotter is highlighted by the fact Brive have seven Fijian’s in their squad with another four at Castres. Cotter has also been trying to persuade players based in New Zealand to opt for Fiji rather than try for All Blacks honours.
Matavesi retired from test rugby after the World Cup which saw Fiji lose their final pool match 29-17 to Wales and they have not played a test since that contest. While he opted to call it a day after winning 24 caps, Matavesi, who is still only 29, admits the joy he is getting from helping Bath bid for the Gallagher Premiership title has recharged his rugby batteries and he would consider a return to national colours if Cotter made that call.
Matavesi, who is preparing for Bath’s home clash with Gloucester when 1,00 fans will be allowed in the ground on Tuesday, told RugbyPass: “Many of the Fiji players in Europe are the best at their clubs and it is a great to be involved in the Eight Nations tournament. The benefits that come with being in this tournament will be fantastic for the boys and the player pool will grow with more fixtures and we will get even better. I hope the boys go out and be brave, show their style of play.
“Test rugby is a big commitment and I have done it for 10 years and if they asked I would love to, but let’s see what happens. During lockdown I really missed the game and I told myself I would just enjoy rugby when it restarted. If Vern wants me then we can have a conversation.
“I was involved in our camp in Toulouse last year before the World Cup and while you cannot do a lot physically you can go through strategy and team values. You do get a lot out of it and can bond with the coaches and it will be important to get face to face with Vern and understand what it’s like to work with and what the vibe is.”
The Matavesi family will be supplying hooker Sam to the Fiji squad and he is currently with Northampton and the youngest member of the clan – Joel – helped Newcastle return to the Premiership which means all three brothers will be operating in the top flight of English rugby next season.
Bath have moved up to third in the Premiership and Matavesi has been at the heart of their impressive run and added: “We really work hard at our shape in attack at Bath and there is more than one way to skin a cat and we back ourselves to have the courage to go wide but we also have the pack which is going really well. We are not trying to be the All Blacks – just the best we can be.
“Our win at Sale was really important and we imposed our style of rugby of them and that was credit to the forwards who put their bodies on the line. It is fantastic that the fans will be back against Gloucester and I am sure the 1,000 will generate enough noise to make up for those who would love to be there. Ben Spencer joined from Saracens, is a really good guy and a great influence on the other scrum-halves and we want to play quick but also have that kicking game.
“Our target is to get to the Premiership final but we have a massive game against Gloucester and then play Saracens. Momentum is with us but we cannot afford to get ahead of ourselves.”