The table-topping Fijian Drua are not only poised to upset the Aussie apple cart by winning the 2018 NRC, but they can help Fiji take down some big-name rivals – including the Wallabies – at the 2019 World Cup.
That’s the hope of Fiji Test coach John McKee, at least, who has been watching on happily as the Drua have hit red-hot form in the opening half of their second season in the NRC.
They sit atop the ladder after five rounds, with four wins and a loss, and they average a whopping 42 points a game.
McKee’s Flying Fijians side is primarily made up of Europe-based professionals, but the Drua players are all drawn from the largely amateur ranks who play “on island” in Fiji.
Just as Australian Super franchises, and to a lesser extent the Wallabies, use the NRC as a pathway tool, McKee is also increasingly relying on Drua players for national call-ups.
And he forecasts that by next year the likes of Frank Lomani and star playmaker Alevereti Veitokani will not just be involved in their World Cup campaign, but be major contributors too.
“That program is going to be massive for us,” McKee told RUGBY.com.au.
“There has been quite a lag for our locally based players between playing domestic rugby and playing at international level, who probably don’t get enough competition playing at the higher levels of the game.
“But having that Drua campaign over eight to ten weeks, and having the players in a more high performance environment, we will really develop our best young players on island.
“For me, immediately, I saw last year the local players who came on the November tour were much more ready for the high levels of the game than they had been previously.
“So from a flying Fijians perspective, that five or six local players who will make the cut, that they get to play in a high-performance environment is really valuable.”
The importance of having a local pathway tier for rising stars was made all the more apparent this week when the Fijian Schoolboys team beat a New Zealand Barbarians schools side 15-10.
But, like Argentina before them, Fiji are hopeful the distinction between home-based and Europe-based players will soon be extinguished, via inclusion in Super Rugby.
Though there is no determination yet on what Super Rugby will look like under the new broadcast deal from 2021, high-level discussions have been held about the feasibility of including a Pacific Islands team; including the best of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.
There would be no shortage of talent, or support, but financial backing is another issue. Reports this week suggested a privately-backed consortium could base a Pacific franchise in Hawaii, opening up the US market.
“There is certainly a lot of discussion going on and I don’t think it is any secret that there have been some bids put in to SANZAAR about a Pacific team, either based out of Fiji or on a wider scope of playing games in other places,” McKee said.
“For me, from my perspective as Fiji coach, I think that would be a great thing, to have some of the best Pacific players maybe not playing in Europe but playing in a Super Rugby team.
“It would be great for not just the Super Rugby competition, I think it would be great for Australian rugby because a team like that can generate a lot of interest in Aystralia. There is quite a level of Pacific populations in Australia so it could boost the interest in Super Rugby here.
“But there is a lot of negotiation and discussion to be done before that comes to fruition. SANZAAR have got to decide what format they’re going to carry forward in the competition, and the broadcaster has to agree to a deal.
“So there are certainly talks going on and hopefully it does lead towards a Pacific team in maybe the next format of the competition. But we’ll have to wait and see.”
In the meantime – and in the potential event that there is no expansion to include a Pacific or Fijian franchise in Super Rugby in coming years – McKee hopes Drua players will be picked up by Aussie or Kiwi Super teams.
Lomani, for example, spent time under Will Genia at the Rebels this season, but didn’t get a run.
“Hopefully over time it will opens up a good shopfront for our most talented young platers to get more opportunity in Super Rugby, because I think they have been overlooked a little bit,” he said.
“Sometimes when our young players go to Europe they get a bit lost in the professional game up there, so if we can get more of our most talented young players playing in Super Rugby, it’d not only be great for the Super Rugby teams but it would also be of benefit for us at the international team.”