On the eve of his record fifth Rugby World Cup as a coach, Warren Gatland used his column in a British newspaper to raise concerns about the potential for his Wales team’s training sessions being recorded during the tournament.
“We use drones to film our own sessions,” Gatland said in The Daily Telegraph, “but it is hard to be sure that there are no other drones monitoring from long distance. The technology in cameras now is such that you could probably be a couple of miles away and able to discreetly film training away from security.”
To be clear, Gatland was reacting to a report that an unnamed tier one nation sought clarification from World Rugby over sanctions for spying. He wasn’t accusing his team’s first opponent, Fiji, of any foul play.
The Fijians are hardly flying under the radar at this World Rugby.
The Pacific Island team typically comes into the tournament with a bunch of outrageously gifted players, only to be tripped up by a tough draw, poor preparation, a lack of squad depth, the denial of games against top opposition in the World Cup cycle or financial issues. Indeed, often a mixture of all of that.
This time, Fiji looks primed to make a mark on rugby’s biggest stage.
And Gatland knows it.
“They are probably a lot more structured now as a team than they were in the past,” the Wales coach said this week ahead of Sunday’s game in Bordeaux.
“They are a good side, they have a lot of players coming out of Super Rugby and playing in France, so it’s an exciting challenge for us. In the past their set-piece hasn’t been the best, but they have definitely worked hard on that. They were maybe a bit more flamboyant in the past, not so much now, but that makes them a more dangerous side.”
Dangerous is definitely the word for a Fiji team that has so much going for it.
They are the most recent Pacific Nations Cup winners, beat England — at Twickenham, no less, with Gatland in the crowd — and had a decent showing against France in World Cup warmups, are up to No. 7 in the world ranking and are benefitting from having a Fiji-based team — Fijian Drua — playing against New Zealand and Australian clubs in Super Rugby.
The rugby world has been waiting for a Fiji team to arrive at a World Cup prepared like a top nation.
Well, we pretty much have it now. No wonder excitement is going through the roof in the rugby-mad republic of more than 100 inhabited islands.
That excitement, and belief, is coursing through the squad, too.
“We’ve got strength and depth — that’s something we haven’t traditionally had,” Fiji coach Simon Raiwalui said on Friday.
“We’re a different Fijian team,” he added. “We’ve worked on certain areas that have traditionally been a weakness for us so it’s going to be a good challenge in those areas.”
Just don’t expect Fiji to lose that explosive, dynamic and occasionally loose edge under Raiwalui, who was promoted from his previous role as high performance manager after Vern Cotter quit as coach in February.
“One of my catchphrases is, ‘Play like a Fijian,’ so traditionally that’s the offloading, the quick touch, the one touch, aggressive ball carriers, the contact, our set-piece. So that’s what I’ve really pushed, to play like a Fijian.”
Wales knows all about that. This will be the fifth straight World Cup that the teams have met in the pool stage and no game was more memorable than the one in 2007. Fiji won that classic 38-34 in Nantes, earning a quarterfinal spot and sending Wales home before the knockout stage.
That was the second and most recent time the Fijians reached the last eight, and they’ve never gone further.
Wales has reached the semifinals twice under Gatland, in 2011 and 2019, only to lose nail-biters. Getting out of the pool is the main aim for the Welsh, who have won just five of their 20 games since the start of 2022.
Gatland came in midway through that spell and has a new captain, in Jac Morgan, and a fairly fresh-looking team with many stalwarts gone.
“We’re not thinking past Sunday,” Gatland said.
Fiji selected Teti Tela at flyhalf in place of the injured Caleb Muntz, who arrived in France as the first-choice No. 10 but was ruled out of the tournament on Wednesday, two days after sustaining a knee injury in training.
Nine in the matchday 23 play for the Drua.
Wales: Liam Williams, Louis Rees Zammit, George North, Nick Tompkins, Josh Adams, Dan Biggar, Gareth Davies; Taulupe Faletau, Jac Morgan (captain), Aaron Wainwright, Adam Beard, Will Rowlands, Tomas Francis, Ryan Elias, Gareth Thomas. Reserves: Elliot Dee, Corey Domachowski, Dillon Lewis, Dafydd Jenkins, Tommy Reffell, Tomos Williams, Sam Costelow, Rio Dyer.
Fiji: Ilaisa Droasese, Selesitino Ravutaumada, Waisea Nayacalevu (captain), Semi Radradra, Vinaya Habosi, Teti Tela, Frank Lomani; Viliame Mata, Lekima Tagitagivalu, Albert Tuisue, Te Ahiwaru Cirikidaveta, Isoa Nasilasila, Luke Tagi, Samuel Matavesi, Eroni Mawi. Reserves: Tevita Ikanivere, Peni Ravai, Mesake Doge, Temo Mayanavanua, Levani Botia, Simione Kuruvoli, Josua Tuisova, Sireli Maqala.
AP rugby: https://apnews.com/hub/rugby