By Michelle Curran
There is an air of anticipation and excitement at Rugby House in Suva as Fiji Rugby awaits to hear of their inclusion in this year’s Autumn Nations Cup 2020 Tournament and the result of its bid for a Fiji team in the Super Rugby competition.
Fiji Rugby Union chief executive officer John Masi O’Connor is keeping a positive frame of mind knowing what has been implemented working alongside Pacific Rugby Players over the past few years has laid solid foundations for growing the game in Fiji.
Initially, John Masi O’Connor and the Fiji Rugby Union (FRU) were a bit dubious of Pacific Rugby Players (PRP) agenda when it extended an invite to discuss a potential partnership.
The FRU chief executive officer since 2016 says the Board held a negative perception of PRP, seeing them as an agent for players, who may hold unions to ransom over issues affecting players.
“There was a notion that once players belonged to an association such as PRP, they would start demanding unrealistic things which rugby unions would not be able to afford,” John explains.
Many meetings later with PRP CEO Aayden Clarke, John and the Board were reassured PRP existed to not only support players welfare and wellbeing, but also to support Pacific rugby unions to grow and thrive.
“We got to know each other personally and gained one another’s trust, and Fiji was actually the first Pacific union to sign our MoU with PRP,” John says.
“Once Samoa and Tonga saw us working in partnership with PRP and all the positive results we were getting, they got on-board.”
A dynamic partnership has evolved, with PRP supporting FRU to achieve its goals.
Suva-based PRP player development manager Gaylene Osborne has been recruited to support, guide, assist, and empower players in their personal and professional development.
This includes working with players to develop career prospects outside of rugby, gain educational qualifications, engage in personal planning, equip them with financial knowledge, and advance their ability on how they can manage their professional rugby career.
Gaylene also works with Fiji-based emerging players in the FRU Academy (men and women), and the various representative teams.
“Probably the best thing we have done with PRP’s help, is to involve parents in our programmes as they are the drivers in the decision making when it comes to school kids,” John says.
“We have programmes in place which prepare our school-aged kids and what to do when they receive offers from overseas schools and clubs – and having the parents involved is essential so everyone understands what will happen when they accept an offer, and the sacrifices involved.”
More and more, FRU has been encouraging school-aged players to remain in Fiji, and continue in the high-performance academy, and complete the professional development programmes PRP runs in the Pacific Island nation.
“Keeping our young players as part of our player pathways for longer, allowing them to be selected for our national teams builds the players’ profiles, and increases their value in the market giving them the opportunity to attract better contract offers with big professional clubs,” John says.
“A good example is Filimoni Botitu, who got some initial offers from rugby league and rugby clubs after being part of the Fiji School Boys side but with the guidance of the elite pathway manager, academy coaches and the support of PRP, he decided to stay in our pathway programmes.
“Filimoni represented the Under-20s before being selected for the Fiji Sevens team to play in the HSBC Series.
“This resulted in being offered a professional rugby contract with Top 14 French club Castres – far better than the initial contracts he was offered.”
While Filimoni’s story ends well, John says there are many examples of where young players have rushed into rugby playing contracts which have not turned out so well.
“They have had to return home to start rebuilding their rugby careers and this is an area of challenge Fiji Rugby and PRP will continue to work on to ensure all our young players are exposed to proper information and advice to allow them and their parents to make the right decision.”
Things are looking up however, as the hard work undertaken by our high-performance unit and development officers starts to bear fruit, John adds.
“More and more young players between the ages of 19 to 21 are starting to come through our system and play for their senior provincial team in the premier domestic competition.
“We’re excited with this transition as we look forward to the 2023 and 2027 World Cups.
“Representing their respective provincial teams is a great advantage for these young players, and we are happy with the support of PRP, these young players and their families are in a better position to make the right decision for them, their family, and for their career.”
Targeting children and educating them at a young age about what it takes to be a professional rugby player has become a focus for the FRU.
John and PRP are currently identifying someone to develop a school-based programme.
“It is important for these young kids and their families to understand what it is like when they enter a professional playing environment, as well as the demands of such lifestyle.”
In Fiji, it is every young kid’s dream to become a national rugby player and of course, become a professional rugby player, John says.
“Everyone wants to play, and our job is to create pathways for the young men and women.”
In recent times, FRU has made women’s rugby a priority area to develop, John adds.
Last month, the Union welcomed 33 players into its first ever Women’s High-Performance Unit Academy.
“As part of the Academy we are introducing our female players to the professional rugby player lifestyle, and we thank PRP for their support of this programme.
“We are serious about women’s rugby and last year we started a secondary school competition which we had intended to grow this year and include more girls in the different age grades, but this was cancelled due to COVID-19.
“COVID-19 has thrown a spanner in the works, but we will run it next year.”
The CEO believes the Fijiana Team will win Fiji its first World Cup.
“We have already qualified for the 2021 World Cup in New Zealand and we hope to have a full-time coaching team on-board soon so we can prepare properly and be very competitive at the World Cup,” he says.
“We are not participating to make the numbers – we want to create some upsets and make our mark in our first ever World Cup.”
In just a few years, Fiji Rugby has undergone a substantial period of growth and things will change again if it is successful in its bid for a Super Rugby team.
The benefits of having a Super Rugby team would be huge and the way forward for Fiji Rugby, John says.
“It would totally change the landscape of rugby in Fiji – players could stay in Fiji rather than having to travel to France or elsewhere and look after their families.
“It would also provide invaluable game time against top players and sides to help us improve at an international level.”
Discussions are ongoing and teams will be confirmed towards the end of September.
The CEO remains optimistic – and acknowledges the time is right for Fiji Rugby to advance, with PRP an ever-present and invaluable guiding force.
Visit Fiji Rugby for more information.