Highly experienced Fiji take on a largely amateur Cook Islands side this Saturday, in what is the proverbial ‘David versus Goliath’ fight for the right to play at RWC 2015 as Oceania 1.
Whoever prevails will join England, Australia, Wales and the Repechage winner in Pool A, and will have the honour of kicking off the tournament against the host nation at Twickenham on 18 September, 2015.
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Fiji are ranked 10th in the IRB World Rankings, have played in every Rugby World Cup tournament to date except 1995 and a loss would be unfathomable for the 1987/2007 quarter-finalists. The Cook Islands, relishing their underdog status, are ranked at 46th, and have never qualified for a Rugby World Cup before.
Pacific Island neighbours Samoa and Tonga automatically qualified for England 2015 from the last Rugby World Cup in New Zealand in 2011, and the Fiji team management view this match as their most important for several years. Fiji’s build up to the match has seen them play Tonga (45-17), Italy (25-14) and Samoa at home over the last three weeks as preparation.
Despite a narrow 18-13 loss to Samoa last weekend in the Pacific Nations Cup the Fiji team, with a host of professional overseas-based players, has shown impressive form. The importance of the match is highlighted by the presence of evergreen 38-year-old wing Sireli Bobo who plays for La Rochelle in France.
No complacency: Bobo
A crowd favourite like many of his teammates he has headed home to assist Fiji qualify. “This is far more important than the Pacific Nations Cup. This is all about qualifying for Rugby World Cup,” Bobo said.
“It is 80 minutes of rugby and we will not take the Cook Islands lightly. We failed to execute our game plan last week against Samoa. We need to play as a team from the first minute. If we show individual play then it will be difficult to win.
“In this squad we have a huge number of overseas-based players and the majority play in Europe. What is the point of having such players when as a team we do not follow our game plan.”
Fiji coach John McKee said at training in the week: “There is no such thing as a walk in the park. We have to be focused and motivated.”
McKee was disappointed with the Samoa result and added: “We have to work with more discipline around the ruck area, offside line and defending, we cannot cause infringements and give away simple penalties.”
The Cook Islands like Fiji are one of the IRB’s 14 Oceania member unions and are playing the most important match of its short history. The Cooks failed to qualify for the 1999 and 2007 tournaments. On the verge of qualification in 1997 they lost to Tonga and Fiji, and in 2006 lost a two-Test series to Tonga.
One Win, One Dream
The Cook Islands won the right to play Fiji this weekend by winning the 2013 Oceania Cup by defeating Solomon Islands (39-12), Tahiti (38-5) and Papua New Guinea (37-31). So excited by the prospect of having this chance to qualify the Cook Island Rugby Union created a community campaign called ‘One Win One Dream’.
The campaign’s aim has been to build community awareness of the match, support the Union’s voluntary work and importantly to raise funds for the team’s preparation including talent identification, team camps and warm-up fixtures.
That preparation has involved two matches in New Zealand, against Thames Valley and an Auckland Blues Development XV. Despite losing both matches 17-12 and 34-14 respectively the “Cookies”, want to do their nation and rugby community proud.
Cook Islands captain and its most senior player, Stan Wright, who plays at Narbonne in France, is well aware of the daunting task ahead of his team, “We are a small nation team yet we have so much pride with it. We are basically amateurs and we are here to play for the love of the country and the jersey we put on,” Wright said.
“We did well last year to beat Papua New Guinea but this is a step up and it will be a tough challenge.” Rugby in the Pacific is enjoying real growth thanks to targeted IRB funding in new high performance and tournament structures.
The global junior development programme ‘Get into Rugby’ has also just been launched in the Islands. Fiji presently has 8500 registered senior men players, far more than the Cooks’ 500. Hence the Cooks Islands underdog status but undeterred they are clearly relishing the challenge of playing Fiji for the right to qualify for Rugby World Cup 2015.