Fiji delivered one of the highlights of the Test calendar this year with a history-making victory over France in Paris last month.
Clips of the squad and coaching staff singing an emotional rendition of 'E Da Sa Qaqa' ('We Have Overcome') on the pitch as the Stade de France crowd scattered went viral after the Flying Fijians' 21-14 triumph.
We have overcome: Semi Radradra scores for Fiji in their historic Test win over France in Paris last month. Credit:AP
But one of the key figures in the John McKee-coached team's rise from tier-two battlers to eighth in the world over the past two years says the Pacific Islands nation continues to fight with "multiple arms" tied behind their backs.
"The issue is that we don't have the same opportunities the tier one nations do. The rich get richer and the poor don't get any further," Fiji Rugby Union's general manager of high performance, Geoff Webster, said. "We play six Tests a year, maybe three at home, whereas all the tier ones have got the Rugby Championship, the Six Nations and the November tours. They sell those out every game just about.
"We're fighting with one arm behind our backs. If we had any more than two arms we'd be fighting with multiple arms tied behind our backs. We don't have the funding the tier ones have, we don't have the opportunities to play games on a competitive basis, we don't have the preparation that the other teams do.
"It's hard work. For every time we get a performance like we did against France, it's a bit validating to say 'we can do it'. Under the right circumstances, we can do it."
The Stade de France upset made headlines around the world, propelling Fiji to its highest world ranking, just two spots below Australia and above France and Argentina.
It was their third win over a tier one nation in the past 18 months – they beat Scotland and Italy at home last June – confirming their status as the danger team for Australia and Wales when the three meet in the pool stages of next year's World Cup.
On the back of three titles claimed by the country over the past 12 months – the World Rugby Pacific Challenge, the World Rugby U20 Championships and Australia's National Rugby Championship – and governance reforms that have seen the FRU elevated to the World Rugby Council, Fiji appears to be making genuine progress.
Focus: Fiji coach John McKee has targeted the team’s scrum and defence for improvement over the past 12 monthsCredit:AP
But Webster says that progress will always be hampered by the structural unfairness in the international game. He urged World Rugby and the tier one unions to shake up the landscape that currently sees Fiji shut out of the major Test championships.
"For us getting more tier one fixtures would be number one [priority]," he said. "If we could get into a League of Nations (or World League), the Rugby Championship, or SANZAAR, with a reasonably fair commercial arrangement, that would be fantastic for us."
That remains a work in progress with SANZAAR understood to have shut the door on Super Rugby inclusion and the World League still little more than an interesting talking point at this stage. But the FRU has agreed to join Global Rapid Rugby next year and the Drua's ongoing NRC involvement will continue to improve the country's 'on-island' playing stocks.
The player drain from the region to Europe, Australia and New Zealand continues to be a challenge, with the vast majority of the Test side based in Europe outside national duties. But Webster believes that clever strategic planning from Test coach John McKee, a strong strength and conditioning program, the team's recent focus on improving their scrum and defence and a 12-week preparation window next year, means Fiji could do something special at the World Cup.
Flying Fijian: Semi Kunatani runs the ball at Stade de France in Paris. Credit:AP
"We want to be in a position where we can not just make the play-offs but go deep into them. To do that you want to win every game and certainly knock off at least one of the tier ones [Wales and Australia]," Webster said.
"We would view the Japanese experience in 2015 as what the team is capable of doing with the right lead-in. We can be a little bit rocks and diamonds – more diamonds at the moment than rocks – but with the plan that John [McKee] and his staff have in place for the next 10 months, we think we can do something pretty special."
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