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France becoming second home for rising number of Fijian fliers

By Brendan Gallagher

WITH Alivereti Raka’s name on everybody lips this week following his command performance for Clermont against Saracens I spent an instructive morning trawling through the Top 14 and Pro D2 websites seeking out fellow Fijian wings.

The results were pretty eye-popping with Raka – Fijian for rugby by the way – very much the tip of the iceberg.

In the T14 I make it there are 17 front line Fijian wings currently plying their trade. Only Castres don’t have a Fijian flyer on their books, while La Rochelle tend to use the versatile Kini Murimurivalu at full-back rather than wing.

And in the 16 team Pro D2 there are 18 front line Fijian wings taking centre stage with only Beziers declining to join the party.

So that’s a quite remarkable 35 Fijian wings operating in the top echelons of French professional rugby to be placed aside the other exceptional Fijian wings doing their stuff in and for other nations around the globe.

Waisake Naholo has enjoyed a good season for the All Blacks and Semesa Rokoduguni was going well for Bath and England before injury. Niko Matawalu ran riot for Glasgow to help Nick Grigg score arguably the try of the season against Leinster, while Australia enjoy the services of Henry Speight, Marika Koroibete, Samu Kerevi and the massive Taqele Naiyaravoro.

And just for good measure, on further investigation, I make it nine Fijian-born wings are Super Rugby regulars while a further nine feature in Division One of the NPC in New Zealand. It’s difficult to keep up with who is where. You can see why many in the game argue strongly that rugby owes Fiji – and the other islands – a debt. We wouldn’t have the game we love without them.

Fijian wings have become a cliche, almost a fashion accessory for well heeled clubs. There just seems to be an endless supply from the small Pacific Island nation and, of course, one of the tragedies is that those nations themselves can pick only two at any one time. And often the very best have already opted for another nation.

The mutual attraction between Fijian and French rugby in particular is not difficult to divine. The French season tends to be bookended by blissful warm weather – although many Fijians have discovered that France does also have proper biting winters – and the move makes good economic sense for both parties Fijians players come from a poor third world nation with no professional domestic rugby and a national side that can offer very little financially. Fijian wings are not particularly expensive to sign, especially if the clubs get them young, and French rugby has more money spread more evenly around its clubs than most.

And once a core group is established in France it becomes self-perpetuating with a friendly face from home at most clubs waiting to welcome the latest Fijian recruit. Indeed, that player based in France might have even helped recruit his compatriot.

Raka is the latest ‘shooting star’ but actually he’s not particularly new on the scene. Hardly a teenage prodigy at 25, Raka starred for Fiji’s champion club Daveta before being enticed away by Clermont three years ago. Since then he has quietly been learning the ropes as a professional at a club where virtually nobody is guaranteed a first team start.

Iron lungs: Fiji 7s star Savenaca Rawaca now plays in the Pro D2 for Bayonne (Photo: Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)

Clermont have close contacts in Fiji as do Brive, who rather grandly run an Academy there although it’s not clear exactly what that entails over and above a club representative travelling around the Islands doing the occasional coaching and cherry picking from the enormous number of talented quick men. Nor is it clear if that is entirely legal under World Rugby regulations.

When does such behaviour become exploitation of a Union and nation?  Part of World Rugby’s on-going review of the Pacific Islands’ future must be to define clearly what is permissible, if anything. This especially applies with schoolboy stars when they are offered the ubiquitous ‘scholarship’ overseas.

Raka has been in startling form all season and is now eligible for France should he choose to go down that route, which he almost certainly will. The financial returns from a high profile career with France can support him and his family for life, and indeed help other family members back home in Fiji.

You fear for him a little, though. We have been here before recently.  France made a huge fuss about recruiting Noa Nakaitaci and Virimi Vakatawa  after both shone for a couple of seasons but neither have yet proved a great success for Les Blues, possibly because France haven’t been good enough to feed them with sufficient pill.

It would be sad to see such outstanding talents go missing from the Test scene but under the current regulations that is what will happen if they suddenly fall out of favour and France consign them to the bin.  Raka is hot at present but if France rush him in asap and it goes pearshaped over the next 12 months what will be his fate?

Top 14: Nemani Nadolo and Tomicie Nagusa (both Montpellier); Filipo Nakosi and Vilikisa Salawa (Agen); Metuisela Talebula (Bordeaux Begles); Banito Masilevu (Brive); Alivereti Raka (Clermont) and Noa Nakaitaci (Clermont, capped by France); Jone Tuva and Timilai Rokoduru (Lyon); Watisoni Votu and Apisai Naqalevu (Pau); Virimi Vakatawa (Racing 92, capped by France); Kini Murimurivalu (La Rochelle); Waisea Nayacalevu (Stade Francais); Josua Tuisova and Semi Radradra (Toulon). Total 17

Pro D2: Waisale Sukanaveita (Montauban); Timoci Matanavou, Nacani Wakaya,(both Mont de Marsan), Uwa Tawalo (Biarritz); Venione Voretamaya and Randall Kamea (both Colomiers);  Setareki Bituniyata (Massy), Eroni Tuwai and Jone Waqaliva (Aurilliac), Joeli Lutumailagi (Vannes); Savenaca Rawaca (Bayonne); Sakiusa Bureitakiyaca and Esava Delai (Dax); Sakiusa Navakadretia (Narbonne); Leka Tagotago (Carcassonne); Josaia Raisuque and Ilikena Bolakoro (both Nevers); Kimani Sitanti (Angouleme). Total 18

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