Fiji have always possessed an abundance of attacking flair but coach John McKee says discipline will be crucial if the Pacific islanders are to emerge from their pool at the Rugby World Cup in Japan.
McKee’s men have a mountain to climb to make the quarter-finals for the third time in their history, facing Australia first up in a pool that also includes Wales, Georgia and Uruguay.
However, the Fijians have already displayed their giant-killing credentials, claiming a maiden 21-14 victory over France last year that left Les Bleus reeling.
The win focused attention on McKee, the low profile New Zealander who has quietly revolutionised Fiji’s approach to 15s rugby since he took over in 2014.
While encouraging the exuberant anything-goes attack that earned the Flying Fijians their nickname, he has worked hard to improve the less glamorous aspects of their game including scrums and lineouts.
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He has also instilled discipline in areas such as diet and training, as well as encouraging his players to remain composed on the pitch.
Previously, opponents might fall victim to some brilliant Fijian running but they could usually depend on being handed an opportunity to hit back when a rash tackle or intemperate punch incurred a penalty.
“Yellow cards affect performance, so we need to play clean, hard rugby,” McKee said.
“We’ve got to have 15 players on the park at all times.”
The approach of blending players’ natural ability with a large dose of professionalism is similar to that adopted by Englishman Ben Ryan, who guided Fiji’s sevens team to Olympic gold in 2016.
McKee had already taken Fiji to four successive Pacific Nations Cup titles before the France win put him on the radar.
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Their strong form has continued on the lead-up to the World Cup, including defeating the Maori All Blacks for the first time in 62 years as part of a drawn two-match series.
They were at their attacking best in their final warm-up against Tonga, snaring intercepts and making defence-splitting runs to score five tries in a 29-19 win.
McKee praised the defensive steel his side showed against the hard-hitting Tongans and the improvements shown by Fiji have not been lost on Australia.
Fly-half Bernard Foley said the Wallabies could not afford to look ahead to their second pool match against Six Nations champions Wales because Fiji had the talent to punish any complacency.
“For us, we’ll be focusing on that first game against Fiji,” he said.
“They look like they are building a remarkable squad. They’ve got a lot of talent. We will be well aware of their attacking threats and how we want to play them.”
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AIM FOR TOURNAMENT — “(This squad) has the potential to challenge for a place in the play-offs and make Fiji proud” — coach John McKee
WORLD RANKING — 9TH (77.43)
HOW QUALIFIED — OCEANIA 1
RWC HISTORY — PLAYED 28: 10 WINS, 18 LOSSES, 0 DRAW
BEST FINISH — QUARTERFINALS (1987, 2007)
POOL D — AUSTRALIA, WALES, GEORGIA, FIJI, URUGUAY
SATURDAY 21 SEPTEMBER
AUSTRALIA v FIJI: 2.45pm at Sapporo Dome
WEDNESDAY 25 SEPTEMBER
FIJI v URUGUAY: 3.15pm at Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium
THURSDAY 3 OCTOBER
GEORGIA v FIJI: 3.15pm at Hanazono Rugby Stadium, Osaka
WEDNESDAY 9 OCTOBER
WALES v FIJI: 8.45pm at Oita Stadium
FOX SPORTS LAB NOTES
Defeated Six Nations powerhouses France (2019), Scotland (2017) & Italy (2017) over the current World Cup cycle.
3 squad members won the Gold Medal with Fiji’s Sevens Team at the 2016 Rio Olympics (Viliame Mata, Leone Nakarawa, Josua Tuisova).
Upset Pool opponents Wales in the final Pool match of the 2007 tournament to steal a QF place.
Have made the most finals appearances by a current Tier 2 nation (2 — 1987 & 2007 QF).
Have won four of the past five Pacific Nations Cup titles.
Have won just two of their past eight RWC matches from 2011-2015 after winning five of eight games between 2003-2007.
PLAYER TO WATCH — SEMI RADRADRA (CENTRE)
League convert who represented Australia & scored 82 tries in 94 NRL matches. Has become a powerhouse at Outside centre first with Toulon & now Bordeaux in the Top 14 in France.
TOP RWC POINT-SCORER — Nicky Little (125)
TOP TRY-SCORER — Vereniki Goneva (5)