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It's back to the drawing board

Ilaitia Tuiteci
Sunday, December 09, 2012

NOW it is back to the drawing board. The million dollar question is when will we have some momentum and consistency in our rugby game? For the last thirty years, we've been going back and forth to the drawing board and it seems we will continue with the practice of drawing board into the next thirty years.

We failed to maintain consistency after our famous 1977 victory over the British Lions, together with some close fought games played in Suva against the NZ Maori, France and England in 1979.

Our performance dropped further in 1980 losing home Tests to Australia and the NZ All Blacks. Then came the 1980 NZ tour where we lost badly even to a second division team like Wanganui. The embarrassing 1982 UK tour where we played and lost all 10 games, really put our game in the back foot.

The late Inoke Tabualevu came in 1983 and set the platform for our resurrection in the modern game. Fitness programs for players were published in the local dailies with emphasis on upper body strength in the effort to lift our game.

We beat Queensland and the Sydney teams, laced with Wallabies Test players but lost narrowly to Auckland in 1983. The three games brought a ray of hope to the resurrection of our game. Even though we lost very badly again to the All Blacks in 1984, we played some best games ever after this including the memorable narrow loss to Ireland at Lansdowne Rd in 1985.

We went to the first World Cup in 1987 with the leadership of Ratu Josateki Sovau and George Simpkin, and we almost created history in the quarter-final match against France.

The fitness program implemented during the Tabualevu era of early the 1980s, together with Simpkin's philosophy that the quick rucks suited the Fijian better, produced positive results from 1985 up to the 1987 WC.

After 1987, I failed to understand why we didn't stick to the Simpkin formula of forward play.

Those who were in charge of the Fiji team from 1988 put us again in the back foot and as the result we were embarrassed again by lowly rated teams like Romania and Canada in the 1991 World Cup.

This was our worst WC ever, where we lost all our pool games and because of that poor performance, we were not good enough to be in the 1995 WC in South Africa.

When Brad Johnstone came in the mid 1990s, he clearly identified our problem is in the forward game. We may have the flair in the backline that had brought us many memorable victories in the past, the reality is the modern game is fought, contested and won in the forward department.

Brad instilled discipline in the forward play and after only a year, we matched the 1995 World Rugby champion, the Springboks, in forward battle in the one-off Test in Pretoria in 1996. Brad's effort in the development of our forward play produced great results in the 1999 World Cup and we could have proceeded further in the competition had the match referee in our game against France in Toulouse was fair in his decision. Unfortunately for us, the Italians took Brad in 2000 and the platform set from 1996 was not fully tested because of Brad's sudden departure. The success of the 1999 team introduced Brad into the international arena and the Italians enticed him with their top dollar.

Mac McCallion came in after Brad's departure to prepare the 2003 team to the WC in Australia. The 2003 and 2007 World Cups were played with missed opportunities, especially the narrow loss in pool play to Scotland in 2003 and the quarter-final loss to South Africa in 2007. These are two important games we should have won.

Ilivasi Tabua did exceptionally well in 2007 given the very short time he prepared our national team after the sudden withdrawal of Wayne Pivac a few months before WC kick-off. Many rugby followers thought Tabua would be retained to ensure consistency leading up to the 2011 World Cup, but those at Rugby House thought otherwise.

They commented the team to WC2011 under Samu Domoni Jr was the best prepared side but the results are now history, similar to the 1991 World Cup team.

Now another disastrous tour has just been completed and comments from team officials are the same old, just like in the last 30 years: Back to the Drawing Board. Team officials, before the tour were lamenting our positive performance in the 2012 PRC and PNC and they believed that trend would continue to the 2012 Europe Tour.

We engaged a scrummaging expert a few weeks before the tour, which by international standard is a quick fix or band-aid solution. Whoever came up with the idea needs to find a concrete solution to our scrums and forward play. I was reliably informed by a member of the 1999 national team under Brad Johnstone that the forwards during their training session must have a minimum of 100 scrummaging practices. It must be 100 and above, no less. The message is clear, should we wish to compete well in international Test matches, the policy by Brad for the 1999 team needs to be filtered down to provincial and club teams. It needs to be conveyed to secondary school team coaches. There are comments from rugby followers in the past for FRU to set up an academy for those who wish to play in the forwards, especially the tight five. Why can't the FRU explore and probably implement this idea of a Forwards Academy where scrums, lineout throws, mauls and rucks are perfected to suit international requirements and TV viewers expectations.

International rugby TV commentators will continue to pass degrading comments and I don't blame them for uttering comments such as "rubbish" to our national team. To further analyse the comments by these TV commentators, what they are saying is that Fiji rugby's performance are not worthy to be screened to global TV viewers. Our rugby product is not the viewers' preference and it is a waste of viewer's money to see such a sublime performance. No wonder the Georgia game was not televised to a global audience for the simple fact we were not good. Take world raking aside because it won't attract corporate sponsors. People from all walks of life watched our games when they are screened on international TV channels, and this includes business executives in powerful multinational corporations (MNC). It won't do any good to try to convince business executives in the board room for sponsorship when these executives watched our rugby product on TV. Decisions are made thereon, full stop.

The Drawing Board Syndrome needs to be nipped in the bud now or we will continue to be a laughing stock in world rugby.

There is no harm to ask the Samoa and the Tonga rugby unions for assistance and tips in forward play. Tonga and Samoa showed this in their recent games in Europe and they have gained the confidence to stand toe-to-toe with tier one nations. If Tonga can tap on our sevens expert to re-engineer their seven games, we can do likewise and ask them some basics of forward play. The main problem for our national team has been there the last three decades and it seems those that had occupied seats at Rugby House are only good at quick fix or maybe pretended that all is well. The end result of quick fix or band-aid solution is inconsistent performance and unproductive results. We should not be carried away by our once-in-a-blue moon performance, like the Wales and South Africa match in 2007 WC or the drawn game against Wales in the Europe tour of 2010. Apart from these games, there is nothing to be proud of in our national team's performance since August 16, 1977 at the old Buckhurst Park.

We have been going around in circles for too long and we need to start somewhere in our effort to lift our game.

Last week, it was reported in the local daily about some engineering students at FNU, with their new model of scrumaging machines. FRU may need to do a stock-take of all unions to find out how many scrum machines are out there. All registered clubs in Fiji, especially those affiliated to the 10 major unions need to have a scrum machine.

We cannot improve unless this important component of rugby is accessible to our grassroots players.

The recent Europe tour was just pathetic and painful to see our forwards being bashed and pushed around. Let's be realistic in the manner we develop our game and it is time we move away from the drawing board syndrome. Practical strategies need to be designed, tested and implemented.

The debate about whether we stick to our running expansive game or mix it up in tight corners of forward play is not a choice to make anymore. The reality is top teams in the world are integrating both methods of play to win important test matches. England did that marvellously to neutralise the All Blacks. Samoa showed it against France. It still baffles me to hear local coaches commenting on the running game that suits us best instead of following Europe style of forward play. The game against Ireland A was a clear example of running expansive game blended with forward power play. The Irish taught us how to run and fly.

In the midst of all these, FRU has two compelling issues, corporate sponsorship and overseas-based players to deal with.

The FRU is still finding it hard to get a major sponsor, and they will be without one until improvement is made to our game. Corporate sponsorships are not donations where some rugby-mad executives will throw in money to assist our team. Rugby is a product and business houses will only get attracted to good produ

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