It was back in late 2020 that England’s Australian coach Eddie Jones issued the rugby world a warning.
Asked which nation would represent the greatest threat at the 2023 World Cup, Jones offered up two teams.
Unsurprisingly, the vastly experienced coach listed Fabien Galthie’s rising French side.
He then added: “And the other team, possibly, is Fiji.”
His comments, however, came with a caveat.
Jones recognised that if Fiji was included in Super Rugby, it would significantly bolster the island nation’s pathways and help fend off the “wild west”, who historically would lure away their best talent.
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On Saturday, Fiji takes a giant step out of the shadows when the Fijian Drua play their first game at home more than two months after the Super Rugby Pacific season got under way.
“It’s going to be awesome,” former Wallabies coach and now Fiji’s general manager, Simon Raiwalui, told foxsports.com.au.
“The boys are buzzing to be back home in Fiji after so long.”
The Drua touched down in Suva on Wednesday night six months after setting up camp in Ballina, in northern NSW, because of Covid restrictions.
Former Wallabies and All Blacks assistant, Mick Byrne, who is the expansion club’s first coach said “there is lots of positive energy around”.
While the locals run on “Fiji time”, a bumper crowd of more than 10,000 is expected to pack the ANZ National Stadium in Suva.
Unsurprisingly, the Drua are sitting near the bottom of the table and have just one victory over the Rebels.
But the Pacific franchise have performed better than many expected, running the Reds and Force to the last minute.
Last week, in their opening trans-Tasman match against the ladder-leader Blues featuring Beauden Barrett they were hardly embarrassed, going down 35-18.
“We would have liked more wins than we’ve got, but one thing we wanted was to get better each week and I think we’ve put together some good performances each week and are pushing some good teams really hard,” Raiwalui said. “We’ve obviously got a lot to learn in terms of how to control those games and finish those games off.
“But the majority of our squad hadn’t played for 18 months and the majority of the squad had never been in a professional environment before, so the goal was to teach these players how to become professionals, teach them good habits, and I think physically they’ve got better and better so it’s just a matter of combining those elements.
“First year was always going to be tough, but the second and third year that’s where we’re going to get the pay.”
One of the issues Fiji will continually face is how to keep its best talent.
It is by no means solely a Fiji issue, but rather a southern hemisphere one.
No country, including New Zealand, can match the riches found in the north, where cash is thrown around willy nilly in competitions such as the French Top 14 and Japan’s League One.
Raiwalui is realistic about that matter, but says ultimately what the addition of the Drua provides is an avenue that if players want to stay in Fiji, they can.
“Obviously we’d love to keep the talent but we’ve got limited spots and our budgets aren’t that big,” he said.
“We understand players have short windows with their careers, so if we have a player for two or three years and then they get a big contract, I’ll always be proud of them and hopefully they get into a program that sees them continue to improve.
“But we want to keep our talent here, if possible.”
The other added benefit of having the Drua included is the extra 40 players that get exposure that might not have previously.
For national coach Vern Cotter, the added depth will help see the Flying Fijians go from having a strong XV to a formidable squad.
“The one thing that the Drua has done is give us another 40 players that are playing at Super Rugby level, so we would hope that a number of those players would put their hand up and deserve recognition with the Flying Fijians,” the 2019 Wallabies assistant coach said.
“Vern has been watching, so I’m looking forward to some of those players being selected.”
The question is whether Fiji can upskill quickly enough to be a force at next year’s World Cup. Fiji are grouped alongside Australia and Wales in Pool D.
Previously they have pushed both nations but fallen short, yet with Wales looking vulnerable, Fiji are ambitious.
“You have to think big,” Raiwalui said. “This is going to be post our second season of Super Rugby, the players will be gearing towards that Rugby World Cup.
“The goal is to make the finals.
“We’re not putting extra pressure on ourselves, but that’s the expectation for the program.”