MARSEILLE: Fiji captain Waisea Nayacalevu says his country will be carrying the hopes of an entire region when they look to make history against England at the World Cup in Marseille on Sunday. The Flying Fijians are playing in the quarter-finals for just the third time. They are one of only three Tier II teams to have reached this stage of the competition—Samoa in 1991 and 1995, and Japan in 2019 -- but none of them have ever been beyond that. “We want to make history,” said Nayacalevu.

“We have a lot of support from neighbouring countries so we’re representing all the South Pacific.” It is not just the Pacific nations Samoa and Tonga cheering on Fiji, but all Tier II nations, said head coach Simon Raiwalui, who has become something of a global spokesman for those without a place at rugby’s top table.

“I’m proud to be Fijian but I’m also proud of the so-called developing nations, really pushing for the global game, how we improve it, create opportunities, how we break that barrier down,” he said. “This World Cup has been a fantastic example of other teams coming in... and playing fantastic rugby and putting on a spectacle for the world.”

In Fiji, the excitement has been building ahead of this match, with fans going to extraordinary lengths to watch their matches in the early hours of the morning. “We understand how hard outside the cities it is to get to watch the matches,” said Raiwalui.

“We’ve seen videos of people out in the boat or up on the hills just finding sources where they can get electricity, where they can get wifi just to watch the game. “We understand how much it means to them, we appreciate every supporter that we have and we just want to do the country proud”.

“We have a nation of 900,000 people that lives and breathes rugby,” he added. “And we have massive support from the French people that come to the ground.” That last point has not been lost on the England players, with replacement No.8 Billy Vunipola saying earlier this week that his team are happy to be “public enemy number one” in France. Fiji are most non-Fijians’ second favourite team.


‘Take your opportunities’

England coach Steve Borthwick has picked captain Owen Farrell at fly-half and dropped George Ford to the bench, despite his man-of-the-match displays in pool stage victories over Argentina and Japan. Raiwalui has known both fly-halves since they were children, when he was a player at Saracens.

Ford’s father Mike was the coach and Raiwalui played alongside Farrell’s father Andy, who is now in charge of Ireland. “Both are world class players,” said Raiwalui. “Owen is obviously one of the best fly-halves in the world, week in, week out. “He’s good at all phases of the game. I think he gets quite a bit of unwarranted flak from his own home country, his own supporters sometimes. “He’s earned everything he has at the moment, he’s a fantastic player.”

England may be favourites in the quarter-final but it is less than two months since they suffered a shock first defeat to Fiji—and that at their Twickenham home. “It helps to have played against them not so long ago but at the same time we feel like we’ve moved on,” said Farrell.

“We’ve been building since then,” he added. Borthwick has urged his players to rekindle the spirit of 2007 -- his only World Cup as a player—and prove the doubters wrong. Then-reigning champions, England were largely written off after being hammered 36-0 by South Africa in the pool stage. But they bounced back to upset Australia and hosts France in the knock-out stages before losing narrowly to the Boks in the final.

“You’ve got to take the opportunities that are presented to you,” said Borthwick. “As a rugby player I thought I had an opportunity in 2003 and didn’t get picked. “I went in 2007 and thought I’d be there in 2011, but I wasn’t so I played in (only) one tournament. “I want the players to embrace this challenge and have the time of their lives representing England.” – AFP