Flying Fijians coach Simon Raiwalui talked through his 2023 Rugby World Cup memories and moments with Planet Rugby, reflecting on the future of the game for Fiji and the world.
The need for a Fiji/Pacific Island-Lions Test
“I think there would be a huge appetite [for a Lions Test against the Pacific Islands] but I think it all comes down to the host country, as it’s their fixtures, and I think they will want to do more of an ANZAC Test than a Pacific Islands game. I played for the Pacific Islands and it was a great opportunity to do it, but selfishly, I would like it to be Fiji to do it. We are the only team undefeated against the Lions with a 1-0 record, so we can put down the challenge to them and see if they can equal the score,” said Raiwalui.
“I think it would be a great opportunity to include the Pacific Islands, even if it is a difficult logistical challenge to bring it all together. One week to sort players from different teams and cultures is enjoyable but would be a great challenge for us. Either way, I would be up for Fiji or the Pacific Islands playing.”
Fiji Rugby’s growth through the Drua
“We have a well-organised and established academy system, as we have three tiers of players with 90 players in total. In the last two years, some of those players graduated to be part of the Fijian Drua Academy, so those were targeted to be on the fast track to national representation. They were and are training with the professional players of the Drua, and due to some injuries, a lot of them were able to play in Super Rugby, and they stood up quite well.
“You can see growth in Fiji as the majority of the Rugby World Cup-selected players came from our academies. We have a good production line of players being developed. There is no secret about it, and the Sevens showed that production line success in the past. We are in a good place for the future.
“The biggest improvement we could make in the future would be extending the academy system down to the schools. Go down to the U18s and U16s because there’s a lot of talent there, and some are leaving the country to head to New Zealand or Australia and expanding the numbers to go from 30 players with academy contracts to 40, as it would grow our pool to 120 talents. We have to be always looking to grow. You can’t rest on your laurels forever or you are going to stagnate. We need to grow and capitalise.
“I don’t think Fiji ever had a problem with producing talent, it is one of the things we have an abundance of. I think the other teams have more resources in funding, facilities, and infrastructure, while we have a lot of talent that comes through. For us, it is to guide those pathways towards the national team and avoid losing players to other countries or competitions. With the Fijian Drua in place, we have a more secure pathway all the way through the U20s, U23s, and Drua that goes to the Fiji top side.
“There are now more opportunities to stay in the country and develop as a player to then go to Europe to earn a better salary. The real benefits will be seen in 2027 and 2031 when those players come through and mature,” he added in the context of the growth inside Fiji rugby.
The 2023 World Cup experience and signs of growth
“I have a sense of great pride in what we have done in the World Cup. There were certain games where we left stuff on the table and didn’t allow us to win, but the main feeling was a big sense of pride in what we did, especially where we came from. In the year before we didn’t have such good results, and our ranking wasn’t good as well, and we were able to build from that to something that we are proud of.
“We came together with a singular focus, [determined] what our realistic goals were, and worked towards it. Fiji reached the quarter-final, in a knife-edge until England took it, but I couldn’t be prouder of what the staff and players did.
“It was a delicate balance that we had to achieve, as we needed to target the set-piece, discipline, and conditioning, but we couldn’t leave out the flair and talent. It’s a fine balance between going too far and not having enough of that natural attacking flair, that our players have as a natural talent.
“Waisea Nayacalevu’s leadership was important for us, as he led the team from the start on and off the field. He was a natural leader and was a natural choice. He shone out through the tournament and kept improving for the team.
“Looking back to the moment I decided to take the national head coach role, I think it was a great decision. I wasn’t able to come home for a long time, and it was hard, but I am happy that I made that decision. It was an incredible journey, 15 weeks with a great bunch of men… it was fulfilling.”
The Nations League and what the future holds for Fiji
“I was part of all the meetings, and as a whole, we all agreed on what it brought from a high-performance side to the table, as we would be having more Test matches. Any expansion of competition is good, and I am always advocating for more and better-quality Test matches. The new Pacific Nations Cup format will be interesting to see how it goes, but as far as I am concerned, more matches are better.
“We need a bigger stadium for Fiji to host more Test matches as our national one only holds 15,000 and we probably need to reach the 20-25,000. We might have a couple more stadiums, maybe in the west where the international airport and main hotels are, and it would be the ideal location for a new one. Fiji needs also to have the administration issues sorted to get our place back and vote in the council. We have the team, and the players, and now we need to have the conditions to host these big teams, as they will bring a lot of people with them, and if we want to do it right it must be done at a top-level.
“We just can’t sit and wait, as the opportunity will fade and go away. When the opportunity arises, you take it! When the Drua and the Super Rugby franchise came to be, some people said ‘We aren’t ready to do it’ and my argument was ‘We waited for 30 years, let’s take it and sort it out afterwards’.. I had to put up a team in one month. It was rushed but look at the benefits and the good that has brought to Fiji. We just couldn’t wait for another opportunity,” Raiwalui revealed.
“We might need to look beyond the Super Rugby Pacific scheduling, as the Drua have more than 40 players with professional contracts, and they need to play more. We can look for fixtures outside of those Summer and Autumn windows, before or after, so it can open up to opportunities to play against touring teams that are looking to get some more matches and the Drua fits.
“The three things that I wish to happen for Fiji would be a long-time major sponsor first. It gives you security and an opportunity to plan well. In 2023 Fiji Water took that role as a major sponsor, and it made a huge difference for us. The second wish has to go to the continuous growth of the Drua. Looking back to the last two seasons, we were able to score some wins in that first season and qualified for the quarter-finals in the second one, and we need that progression to keep going. If the Drua does well, so does the national team, and with the players playing abroad in Europe and Japan coming into the mix, it gives us a great balance. And for third, a consistent international fixture list. High-quality opponents will mean more growth. When we got to play the top teams in the World Cup, you could see our improvement. “Fiji still hasn’t been included in the new Nations League, as they still need to go through an application process, and we will see what happens. I can see why teams like Georgia are frustrated, as all teams want an opportunity to be involved. What has to happen to nations like the South American ones is that they need to be looked after, find solutions, and get games between them and the Pacific, for example. If we want to be a global game, we need to continue to push for its growth, and exposure is key for it. It’s a tough subject as the game needs to grow, and it must be from the bottom up. We have to grow everybody at the same level, and not only the top 10.”