Total Rugby Radio talked with the IRB's General Manager for Oceania, Will Glenwright, ahead of the IRB Pacific Rugby Cup final this Saturday between Fiji Barbarians and Fiji Warriors.
Total Rugby:Fiji Warriors v Fiji Barbarians in the final, guarantees a Fijian winner for the second year in a row.
Will Glenwright: It has been quite a remarkable tournament actually, particularly the last round. The PRC never ceases to amaze with its surprise results and the machinations and this year was no different
We had four teams all with a shot of making the final going into the last round and that is often the case with the PRC, such is the tightness of the competition. For the first year we have a single country final which is a fantastic result for Fiji rugby going into the ANZ Pacific Nations Cup.
A couple of other milestones, this is the first time we haven't had a Samoan team in the final for the Pacific Rugby Cup, so Fiji's good news is perhaps disappointing news for the Samoa Rugby Union and actually the Warriors in their last round created the biggest winning margin in the PRC history, 48-0 over the Tau'uta Reds. Lots of records tumbling and a very exciting competition, but certainly I think Fiji rugby will be licking their lips at the prospect of an all Fiji final.
TR: What other factors point to Fiji's success?
WG: It is interesting. I think the success of both their teams in the Pacific Rugby Cup is not a coincidence. They have a spent a lot of time and put a lot of work into restructuring their high performance programme after the annual reviews that were conducted last year. They have been working very hard, both internally and with the IRB and our High Performance Manager Peter Horne, to develop a more appropriate structure for their high performance programme.
Nearly all of their players participating in this year's PRC are products of their high performance programme and/or products of their under 20s teams which have become increasingly successful at the Junior World Championships.
They have got two major centres now which makes it easier for the players to get access to a daily training environment, and they are positioning coaches within those centres to work daily with each of those players. I think what we are seeing is a result of a lot of work that has gone on behind the scenes in Fiji rugby and the high performance programme.
TR: When we talk about Samoa and Tonga as well, have we seen the level of performance improve as a whole?
WG: We have. I think the standard of the tournament has improved and certainly that has been the opinion of the referees we have spoken to, the referee assessors and our High Performance Manager.
A tournament like this, and particularly a condensed tournament format, exposes areas that we need to work on and in that regard this tournament has been fantastic. As part of the high performance review that we do for the tournament and the video analysis report that will emerge from it, we will be able to identify key areas within each of the Unions to work on. Finding solutions to those areas is something that we will continue to work with the Unions on and will give us a focus for the high performance programmes within each of the countries. In that regard there is a very high value for a tournament like the Pacific Rugby Cup in addition to the high performance pathway that it presents to the players.
TR: We spoke to Akapusi Qera on Total Rugby radio recently, an example of what this competition can do, into the Pacific Nations Cup, into the national team here and ending up at the World Cup. Are we seeing more future stars?
WG: Yeah we are, that's the beauty of the PRC as it provides a pathway for locally based players to put their hands up for national selection and then perhaps onwards from that to a World Cup and from a World Cup to a professional contract oversees and certainly there has been no shortage of players that have emerged here.
I think here in particular a number of players have caught the eye. Sione Kalamafoni the captain of Tautahi Gold is only 22 years of age, a back rower, he's actually just returned from a two year missionary posting so he hasn't even been playing rugby for the last two years. But he has been in devastating form and improved from game to game. I won't be surprised if we see him in the national team for the ANZ Pacific Nations Cup because he has had a huge tournament and I think he's got a massive future ahead of him.
Another stand out performer has been a young half back for the Fiji Warriors by the name of Nicola Matawalu. He was a member of Fiji's side two years ago at the IRB Junior World Championship, since then he has been within the high performance program. He's been an outstanding player, very versatile he's played at both half back and at centre, but an elusive and devastating step and a very difficult customer; he's just been named actually in the extended squad for the Fiji Warriors so again a young kid but I think with a massive future.
TR: How's the competition been received by the general public and what's the focus on the tournament been like within the country?
WG: Well it's been great, particularly in Fiji which has such a wealth of rugby competitions. It's taken a while to catch the imagination of the Fiji rugby public, but the beauty of changing the format of the tournament and creating a tournament atmosphere and having all of the games in one venue allows particularly the rugby public to develop a better understanding not only of the competition but particularly of the players that are participating in the tournament.
As the potential superstars of the future international players or representatives emerge from a tournament, the rugby public develop an affinity to them and the media get on board and create a real buzz and hype around the tournament. That transfers into bigger crowds, each of the rounds that we have hosted here in Fiji have seen bigger crowds and we are expecting a big crowd for the final.
TR: With the Pacific Nations Cup coming up I'd imagine the national coaches have been interested spectators?
WG: Yes well they've all been here and there's nothing like playing high level international rugby in one venue against six regional sides to test your players and to work out which players can put their hand up for international selection, but also which ones can handle the rigours of an intense and a condensed tournament format.
So there is no shortage of players I think who have staked their claim for selection in the respective national teams for the PNC and all that will be revealed over the next couple of weeks. Certainly the Fijians are in a very fortunate position, where both their teams have yet another opportunity to put their hands up for selection, not only for the Pacific Nations Cup but also the test against the Wallabies on 5 June.
TR: And just finally Will, with the Rugby World Cup coming up next year I suppose there is even more importance and more pressure on all these players to perform?
WG: Yeah absolutely, particularly for the locally based players. They particularly need to show that they are ready for a tournament as important as Rugby World Cup and as far as rugby goes, that's as big a tournament as it gets. It's the jewel in the crown and they're as desperate as the overseas based players to play in that.
So a tournament like the Pacific Rugby Cup is an opportunity for them to show that they are ready as athletes and that they are also ready physically and mentally to handle the rigours of a tournament as big as Rugby World Cup.
Many of them are hoping they'll get selected in the squads for the Pacific Nation's Cup and if not then the November tours and then they have one more shot at it next year before the Pacific Nations Cup again in the lead-up to Rugby World Cup.
It's a tight window, they all have their aspirations and I think they are all desperate to get there.
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