17 Apr 2024

World Rugby spin catches Fiji Rugby out

9:03 pm on 17 April 2024
Fiji Rugby House Suva

Fiji Rugby House Suva Photo: Alex Perrottet/RNZ

Opinion - World Rugby had basically laid the rule down for the Fiji Rugby Union.

Select Mick Byrne or else.

The statement that came out of Valekau (Rugby House) in Suva on Tuesday afternoon effectively said that - indirectly.

There was no bargaining.

Local boy and former Flying Fijians assistant coach Senirusi Seruvakula was a goner by the time the World Rugby team flew into Suva about three weeks ago.

The Fiji Rugby statement said the following:

  • In a meeting convened in Suva between World Rugby representatives Nigel Cass and Simon Raiwalui, Hon Siromi Turaga as Minister for Justice, Hon Jese Saukuru as Minister for Youth and Sports, Fiji Rugby represented by the Board of Trustees and ONOC representative Cathy Wong, it was resolved that it is in the best interests of Fiji Rugby, that Mick Byrne be the Head Coach of the FIJI Water Flying Fijians.
  • World Rugby clarified that the FIJI Water Flying Fijians' performance and ranking at the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France, has put Fiji in strong position to be part of the Nations Championship competition commencing 2026 through to 2030. It would be detrimental to Fiji's participation in the Nations Championship, in the 2024 Olympics, in the Super Rugby Pacific, the 2027 Rugby World Cup and the rest of the HSBC SVNS Series in Singapore and beyond, if the best qualified and proven coaches, are not appointed to Fiji's high-performance national teams.
  • The plan for Fiji's participation, is to be included in a 12-team competition of Tier 1 nations made up of the Six Nations, the SANZAR teams, Japan, and Fiji. The importance of that opportunity to Fiji Rugby, the Fiji Government, and all Fijians, is astronomical. It guarantees engaging in a high-level competition, and potentially hosting 5-6 test matches against Tier 1 Nations each year between 2026 and 2030.
  • There exists a massive opportunity for further investment in Fiji's High-Performance Unit and its programmes by World Rugby, that will enable Fiji to prepare and be part of the Nations Championship. However, World Rugby emphasised that Fiji playing Tier 1 nations on a regular basis as opposed to playing Tier 2 nations will only be a reality if the investment in Fiji Rugby's High-Performance by World Rugby, is protected through the appointment of the best coaches to coach Fiji's national teams through a robust, fair, transparent, and independent process.

In layman's term, what World Rugby told the FRU, government officials and the Oceania National Olympic Committee (ONOC) at that Suva meeting is that you select Byrne or you lose all these.

It was direct and well planned out. They dangled the carrots in front of the rabbit and the rabbit had no choice.

Now it is going to be a waiting game. And already questions are being asked by the fans and local Fijian union reps.

Mick Byrne: Fotosport/David Gibson

Former All Blacks assistant and current Drua coach Mick Byrne has been named the coach of Fiji's national team. Photo: Photosport

What, then, will happen to Byrne's job with the Drua?

They have not been consistent in three years - and have always struggled away from home.

The only game the Drua have won away is against Moana Pasifika in 2022 and 2023. This year they were beaten in Melbourne.

Why wasn't Seruvakula selected? Is there something against qualified local coaches? Was there something that Seruvakula did wrong, which has seen the FRU and World Rugby turn their eyes away from him?

Why is World Rugby deciding for the FRU who should be coach?

Is that a conflict of interest?

Fiji Latui coach Senirusi Seruvakula gearing up for Global Rapid Rugby tournament.

Fiji Latui coach Senirusi Seruvakula gearing up for Global Rapid Rugby tournament. Photo: Facebook/ Fiji Rugby

Signs something was wrong

Signs that something was wrong started when Fiji Rugby went dead silent on the appointment.

After having been bubbly and media friendly about the post being advertised, FRU Trustees Board chairman Peter Mazey seems to have lost his tongue on the issue.

The 'cat got your tongue' question is one many were asking the FRU hierachy in Suva.

In between that time both Lakapi Samoa (Samoa Rugby) and the Tonga Rugby Union have announced their head national coaches.

Samoa have selected former Manu Samoa captain Mase Mahonri Schwalger.

Schwalger is no stranger to the Pasifika rugby circle and also played for the Highlanders, Hurricanes and the Chiefs in New Zealand.

Tonga have gone for former 'Ikale Tahi and sevens coach Tevita Tu'ifua.

They have also named another 'Ikale Tahi Nili Latu as his assistant.

Both the Samoa and Tonga coaching positions were advertised way after Fiji had advertised theirs.

The Samoa and Tonga positions have been given to players who went through the ranks with both union teams.

It aligned with what new World Rugby high performance pathways and player development manager Simon Raiwalui had told the media in Tonga last month.

Former Fiji captain and FRU's general manager of high performance, Simon Raiwalui, at the launch of the new academy.

Former Fiji captain and FRU's general manager of high performance, Simon Raiwalui, at the launch of the new academy. Photo: Facebook / Fiji Rugby

Raiwalui said then that it would be ideal for Pacific unions to select coaches who were not only professionally and technically qualified but critically, those who understood the local culture and environment.

Interestingly, the Fijian coaching position is not without its own controversies.

"For me being from the Pacific Islands, being Fijian, we have very similar cultures to Tonga and Samoa. It has to be a cultural thing," Raiwalui said in February.

"There has to be a connection to the people, who we are, what is important to us, our why.

"If you are going ask people to invest in the team you must invest in the people. The players must understand as well. There's a real cultural fit there. It's not an easy selection."

Seruvakula, the local coach that applied, was first overlooked by the selection panel that shortlisted applicants.

He was advised that he was not considered in the morning and then asked to attend the interview the same afternoon.

Then there was the case of Nadroga-based Franck Boivert, who also applied for the position but never received any confirmation that his application was received.

When he queried he was told by Mazey there was never any application received from him.

Mazey confirmed in a press conference on 9 March that World Rugby actually has more power in the selection of the coach based on a tripartite agreement signed last year.

He said the strict agreement had made it hard for them (FRU) to make decisions regarding any appointment for the Fijian national sides.

When World Rugby was asked why it was "interfering" with the selection of the Flying Fijians head coach, this was the response:

  • All stakeholders are committed to a strong and stable Fiji Rugby Union reaching its full potential on the world stage. Significant progress has been achieved since the transformative roadmap was agreed in May 2023 to restore good governance structures. This work includes supporting the union's high performance programmes, which are crucial to the performance of the national teams. Performances at the men's Rugby World Cup in particular endorse the decisions taken so far, and all parties continue to drive towards a common goal.

Insiders at Rugby House in Suva said there was some disagreement between selecting Seruvakula, who by the laws of Fiji is rightfully deemed to be the coach, and the WR backed Byrne.

The two were the finalists for the top job.

Seruvakula has been given his old job of coaching the Fiji Warriors at the World Rugby Challenge currently on in Samoa.

All three Pasifika national teams have busy commitments this year.

Samoa and Tonga have Test matches against Italy and Spain in July.

Fiji is lined up for a clash against the Barbarians in London before the one-off Test against the All Blacks in San Diego on 20 July.

The three island teams match up against each other in the revamped Pacific Nations Cup, which will see the final stages against Canada, Japan and the United States of America played off in Japan in September.

Interesting indeed to see how things will turn out as three new coaches start mapping their pathways to the 2027 Rugby World Cup.

BORDEAUX, FRANCE - SEPTEMBER 10: George North of Wales and Vinaya Habosi of Fiji compete to make the catch during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between Wales and Fiji at Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux on September 10, 2023 in Bordeaux, France. (Photo by Adam Pretty - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

George North of Wales and Vinaya Habosi of Fiji compete to make the catch during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between Wales and Fiji at Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux on September 10, 2023 in Bordeaux, France. Photo: Adam Pretty - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images

Fiji and Japan included

Meanwhile, discussions on Fiji and Japan's inclusion in the The Rugby Championship (the Tri-Nations) has taken another twist.

SANZAR, the organisation that runs the Super Rugby and the Rugby Championships, has confirmed there are still issues that they need to iron out in regards to the two teams being included by 2026.

At the same time they have confirmed discussions also happening on the two teams' inclusion in a new Nations Championship to be played in the July and November test windows.

This new competition will be separate from The Rugby Championship.

"As I mentioned we are currently in a strategic planning phase for the future of TRC and Super Rugby Pacific and won't be making any further public statements at this time," the SANZAR spokesman said.

"However, there is talk about Fiji and Japan being part of the new Nations Championship to be played in the July and November test windows and separate to TRC.

"This will feature matches between the six '6 Nations' teams in the north and six southern hemisphere nations. The six southern teams will be Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa plus two more. This is where debate about Fiji and Japan has been reported in the media."

At the same time there are plans to also have a women's competition under the same format by 2026.

Now that would be a big plus for the two unions - Fiji and Japan.

But strict pre-requisites include good financial and transparent union management.

That puts a question mark on the Pacific Island unions.

Unless they get themselves up to par with all aspects of management.