What’s it like to coach Fiji? John McKee on the impossible job
Fiji are back in the northern hemisphere and they have some talented players – but you would like to coach them? You would hardly see the players and would have to do it by remote control...
Fiji have been in town this week, staying in Teddington, and the coaching staff have been bombarded with the same questions they get lobbed every time the team visits the United Kingdom. And just because the questions are not exactly original that does not make them irrelevant.
They usually revolve around money, players defecting to other nations and the availability of big names to the national side.
The presence of Nathan Hughes in the England squad and the hat-trick scored by Virimi Vakatawa, for France against Samoa, probably didn’t improve their mood but there might be some good news on that front though when World Rugby finally change the three-year residency rules. And, if, Fiji get a Super Rugby franchise, which is on the cards finally, and have their best players at home the rest of the world had better look out – but for the moment they are time and cash poor.
The Fijians are getting about £400 for playing against England whose players are trousering the thick end of £22,000 but you won’t find the tourists moaning about that.
John McKee, a New Zealander who has been around the coaching block, is currently charged with fielding the queries and most are met with a shrug of the ‘there-is-nothing-we-can-do-about-it variety’. Eddie Jones has a similar outlook but the access he gets to his squad is in a different league to what McKee can budget for and the RFU has pretty deep pockets.
If you put aside the wondrous playing talent the Fijians have at their disposal and the fanaticism for rugby in the islands McKee really has got the impossible job and if the locals were not so good at the game he would probably be in silver revolver mode and taking the easy way out.
Since the last World Cup, when Fiji gave England a hurry-up, lost by a total of 25 points to Australia and Wales and thumped Uruguay, McKee and his players have been virtual strangers – they might as well have been internet dating and been sharing awkward glances over a bottle of cheap vino.
This autumn they first played the Barbarians, in Belfast, and got beaten 49-7 for their troubles and have games against England, at Twickenham, and Japan, in Vannes, in France. But if anything, apart from the massive money discrepancy and the fact only six of the 29-man squad are based in Fiji, sums up the haves and the have-nots situation it is the amount of time McKee actually gets to spend with his squad.
Ahead of the Barbarians match McKee had barely got back onto first-name terms with his players before the kick-off. They had had three Tests in June, against Tonga, Samoa and Georgia but of the squad on current duty only half-a-dozen started that final fixture. The Baa-Baas result was a kick in the guts for the Fijians but there is a reason – as McKee explains.
“We had a three-day camp in Toulouse where all the professional players come in,” he said. “With travelling and everything, we really had four sessions, Monday afternoon, two on Tuesday and Wednesday morning. The requirements say that the professional players return to their clubs and some of them played for their clubs and then we reassembled on Sunday night in Belfast.
“There were still players coming in Monday morning, some players played on Sunday with a Friday night game it was a pretty tough week’s preparation.”
There are something north of 160 Fijians playing rugby in France alone and with so many of them trying to earn a few euros in the northern hemisphere – and who can blame them when they are on a paltry few hundred quid a Test – the national coach is up against it.
McKee added: “We have had very little time together since the World Cup. The World Cup for the tier-two countries is always a good year because the windows and player availability are bigger. The Pacific Nations Cup is expanded and we play a number of games together. Also we are in camps for a number of months rather than a number of weeks.
“Since the World Cup we had a June Test series in Fiji but the French competition ran right into the June window. Technically we could have requested the release of our players but we took the decision that any players who were involved in the finals we would not select in fairness to the players – that was the best pathway to go. We always find in the June window that players who play in Europe they may need off-season surgery or recovery so we do not always have our best squad in June. This November we would have had our strongest squad together since the World Cup.
“The professional era of rugby does make it difficult assembling our players but you look at what the Sevens squad achieved, the programme ran on a shoestring compared to a lot of other countries, so it’s not always about the money.”
But a large dollop of dosh always helps and, hopefully, things are about to get better if the sponsors who are apparently going to put their hands in their pockets deliver the readies. Fiji will have a team in Australia’s National Rugby Championship next year, Olympic gold mania has already struck Suva, a Super Rugby outfit is being talked about and who knows the governing bodies might lob them a bit more cash. Then the rugby world could have a real force on their hands and McKee might get to know his players’ first names again and some of them might opt to play for the land of their birth.