A whole day of Pacific rugby? Why, yes please

DaniE Roar Guru

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    When you’re a rugby nut, and of Pacific heritage, it just makes sense that you’d turn up at 10am to watch the Pasifika round of the NRC.

    That’s what I did on Saturday at TG Milner field, beginning with the final of the Pasifika Cup being played between Australian Tonga and NSW Fiji.

    The Pasifika Cup serves a few purposes – to offer a development path and an opportunity for players of Pacific heritage to play together, to celebrate the contribution of Pacific players to the Australian rugby scene, and to showcase some of the damned good rugby these guys play.

    The game was what I’d expected – incredibly physical, with good combinations and total commitment from both sides. NSW Fiji were the eventual winners, but had to hold off an Australian Tongan fightback which saw the score reach 27-26 in favour of the Fijians with only minutes remaining.

    In true Island style, the game and competition were celebrated with the two teams linking arms singing a hymn, following with a prayer.

    It was unfortunate that this game was rescheduled from a 9.30am start to 10.30am, as it meant that it partly clashed with the Fiji U18s vs Australian Schoolboys Barbarians game played on the main field.

    Fiji Drua vs Melbourne Rising

    (Image: Kevin Juggins)

    The Fijian side had been beaten comprehensively earlier in the series by the Australian and New Zealand Schoolboys sides, and I expected a good match but not so competitive by the Fijian boys.

    However, they showed the talent for attack and ability to take advantage of opponent mistakes that we’ve come to identify as hallmarks of Fijian rugby. They constantly sought opportunities to offload to support. Unfortunately, they also demonstrated some of the typical weaknesses such as the set piece, in particular the scrum, discipline and some decision making.

    The Baabaas went ahead with a penalty goal but the Fijians responded with two tries. An exchange of points during the game culminated with the Fijian 10 Tuinalaba kicking a penalty that brought them to 20-18 in the dying minutes of the game.

    A decision to take a following penalty kick at goal in the closing moments was a mistake, as it was a fairly long kick, and it did fall short, allowing the Baabaas to methodically move the ball up into their attacking zone. A pair of penalties against the Fijians was the death-knell for them, and the Australian 10 Campbell Parata converted the last easily from in front of the posts.

    The New Zealand Schoolboys have a fearsome haka for such a young group, but the first phases of the game were all Australian. The Australian 6, Charlie Rorke busted up the New Zealand defence and was involved quickly in the subsequent phases. But the Aussie attack was short-lived, as it was New Zealand who scored the first tries. That was the story for the rest of the game – the Kiwi schoolboys piled on the points, while the Australians only scratched a second try.

    The Aussie boys were good – but the New Zealand boys were just better. The killer instinct is already ingrained in the Kiwi boys’ rugby style, and they were easily stronger and more skilled. They seemed to have more liberty to throw the ball around in open play, which they did to better effect.

    To the NRC game – Greater Western Sydney Rams versus Fijian Drua. I was particularly interested to see this one, wanting to see up close and live how the Fijians play. I wasn’t disappointed, as it exhibited a lot of the positives of Fiji rugby, especially when viewed against tough opposition.

    Paul Asquith Greater Sydney Rams NRC Rugby Union 2016

    (Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)

    The Rams held in the game up to the 60th minute, but for most of the match it seemed that they were holding on against the onslaught that the Drua would inflict. And when the points came for the Drua, it seemed too simple.

    The Fijian game is based on several things, the first being physical mastery, being all at once flexible, strong and fast. This enables them to perform moves using a range of motion, such as basketball passes, kicks off one hand on a swerve, small chip kicks and confident catching of awkward balls, besides basic skills. They’re incredibly physical in contact and use leg drive to power forward.

    Apart from the physical aspect, the Fijians also possess a developed rugby nous. They’re highly instinctive and collaborative. This makes them dangerous when they sense attacking opportunities and when responding to opposition mistakes.

    They will make decisions based on what choices available (note the number of quick taps yesterday) and deliver at speed. When they offload, not only do their support players run great lines at precise timing, but it’s often at the shoulder of the offloader to ensure completion of the pass.

    But what makes the Fijians joyful to watch is the sense of playfulness they emit. Sport is but organised play – and there is a sense of freedom to what they do which I think resonates with viewers. Forwards and backs have their roles but they all actively collaborate in attack.

    It’s not to say that they play without fault – their lineouts yesterday in particular weren’t successful and there were dropped balls, wayward passes, ill-discipline and defensive lapses. However, their attack was compelling. The more single moments they win, the better their momentum.

    What’s the secret to their success in attack? I suspect that it’s the culture of free play they have. Rugby in Fiji is played in open spaces, after hurricanes in mud, without touchlines, with water bottles instead of balls and with bare feet. They don’t separate into age groups as young and old will join in games.

    As kids they play as if they have nothing to lose except for maybe some neighbourhood reputation. Maybe it’s this liberty to find solutions, to make mistakes, to have free choice on physical movement that makes a difference. If you play like this all the time, then instinct and team understanding becomes second-nature. Playing well is a habit.

    The Pasifika round of the NRC was great to attend. It was fantastic to see suburban rugby, schoolboy rugby and professional rugby all on the one day, and as a rugby fan, gave a lot of food for thought.

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