Samoa or Tonga could be the next entrants to the National Rugby Championship as the Fijian Drua claimed a historic minor premiership just two years after entering the competition.
Rugby Australia high-performance boss Ben Whitaker confirmed they were in early talks with World Rugby about adding another Pacific Islands nation to the third tier competition after the Drua’s success.
The Senirusi Seruvakula-coached side will host Canberra Vikings in Fiji in the first semi-final on Saturday after topping the regular season with a 33-28 win over the Western Force at the weekend.
“We’ve had inquiries from World Rugby and clearly the other two nations they are keen to promote are Tonga and Samoa,” Whitaker said. “Fiji was a good three-and-a-half years in the making so it does take a bit of time to get things in order but that is a discussion that’s commenced.”
Samoa could be the frontrunners in that discussion given last week they celebrated entry to the World Rugby Council, a significant milestone that required constitutional and financial reform but now gives the national union voting powers and an audible voice on matters of national and regional significance.
World Rugby provide most of the funding for the Drua’s participation in the NRC and would have to similarly support another entrant from the region, while Rugby Australia would also have to be on board. With the next SANZAAR broadcast deal under negotiation, it would make sense for any expansion to coincide with the start of the new broadcast deal in 2021.
The Drua’s success is being quietly celebrated in the Suva headquarters of the Fiji Rugby Union.
“We’re absolutely delighted. To come in cold and make the finals two years in a row is beyond our expectations,” FRU general manager Geoff Webster said. “We have always said that the NRC is one of two missing links in the Fiji talent development pathway, and the other is a professional team playing Super Rugby, based in Fiji.
“Everyone talks about how we have the greatest talent in the world and it’s just a matter of tapping into it, but we’re trying to wrap some professionalism and best practice around the naturally talented players on the island.”
To that end, the Drua have been made up almost entirely of what they call “on-island” players, which is rugby speak for players who have not moved offshore to forge careers abroad. All but one of the squad members played in the Skipper Cup this year – Fiji’s provincial club competition – and the odd man out, Albert Tuisue, played for West Harbour in the Shute Shield.
Webster said the trickle-down effect had been immediate. When Fiji Test coach John McKee took some on-island players to Europe on the 2016 spring tour, they were well off the pace.
“Last year the guys who’d played Drua were well-equipped for the intensity and played good minutes of Test rugby,” Webster said. “Credit to World Rugby and credit to [Whitaker] and the ARU for the invitation, and also to Fiji Rugby for backing it. The board and my CEO have recognised that that was the next step for Fiji.”