Alexa

Hard road to World Cup for Pacific entertainers

Hard road to World Cup for Pacific entertainers

Fijians have a term _ cokacoka na vula _ for something that is both difficult to achieve and, by implication, eagerly desired.
The term has a particular relevance and has almost become a theme of Fiji's preparation for this year's Rugby World Cup in France; but applies equally to the troubled preparations of their Pacific neighbors Tonga and Samoa.
Rugby deeply penetrates life in the three island nations and offers each a unique form of self-expression on the world stage. At the same time, performance on the international rugby field has become linked to national prestige and has made the World Cup singularly important to each team.
Few of the 20 teams competing for the World Cup will have endured more difficult preparations than Fiji, Tonga and Samoa.
Fiji has had to endure a military coup which has severely damaged the nation's international standing and led to an economic downturn which cut the budget for the team's Cup preparation.
Tonga was plunged into national mourning last year by the death of its king then overwhelmed by riots which destroyed the commercial infrastructure of the capital, Nuku'alofa. In the aftermath of those events, the Tongan Rugby Union became split along pro-monarchy and pro-democracy lines, delaying selection of the nation's World Cup squad.
Rugby in Tonga remains deeply divided but the Tongan team's Cup campaign offers a unique rallying point.
Samoa has experienced no such civil strife but shares with its neighbors the problems that professionalism has made endemic in Pacific rugby. None of the island nations retains complete control over the movements of its top players, most of whom earn their livings overseas. For that reason, the ability to call on those players when they are needed _ to fully involve them in World Cup buildups _ has been limited.
For all of those disadvantages, few nations will bring to the World Cup or express in their playing style the sheer joy of playing rugby as will Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. Each nation encapsulates in its playing style a deep-rooted love of and aptitude for rugby which places them among the world's great crowd-pleasers.
The fact that Samoa and Tonga meet in a Group A match at Montpellier on Sept. 15 makes it more difficult for one to advance _ which was a longshot anyway in a pool featuring South Africa and defending champion England.
But there's always scope for an upset with the island teams.
All three nations are coached by former internationals _ ex-Wallaby Ili Tabua for Fiji, ex-All Black Michael Jones for Samoa and former winger Quddus Fielea for Tonga. All expect their teams to shine brightly at the World Cup.
Tabua believes Fiji has one of the best backlines in world rugby.
"The challenge is for us to win our fair share of possession and to work it," he said. "Given possession we will be the best side in the tournament. They have the speed and the skills but the onus is on the (forwards) to win the ball and give them a good share of possession."
Tabua is one of the most recently appointed World Cup coaches, taking over this year after the dismissal of New Zealander Wayne Pivac. He has had little time to get to know his team but, still, believes it will be one of the best-prepared Fijian teams ever to play in the world tournament.
"I will have to do the best job that I can in that period of time with the personnel that I have," he said.
"I don't want to use the words like difficult and problems. I see it as a challenge. What can I do? What can I fix? How can I fix it. How can I do it better? That's the question I always ask."
Jones is similarly confident that Samoa has left nothing untried in its Cup preparation.
"A lot of work has gone into our preparations," he said. "The team we've got is a result of years of hard work, monitoring players all over the world."
Fielea has also come late to his task, taking over from Australian Adam Leach in March when Leach resigned for financial reasons.
While Fiji reached the World Cup quarterfinals in 1987 and Samoa made its presence felt when it beat Wales at Cardiff in 1991, Tonga's participation in five World Cups has been less noticeable.
Coach Fielea believes they have the ability to win matches in Group A.
"We think it's achievable to win at least two games in the pool," he said.
"We have a good group of people, both overseas and local players. Everyone is focussed on the game. Now is the chance to really get going. A chance to make sure we do not slide back into the lower ranks."


Updated : 2021-03-05 14:46 GMT+08:00