By Ian Gilbert
For new Fiji coach Inoke Male, the forthcoming IRB Pacific Nations Cup offers the opportunity of redemption for his side after a disappointing Rugby World Cup 2011.
Fiji finished fourth in their pool in New Zealand but the PNC, which starts on June 5 in Japan, will give his players a chance to show what they are capable of.
“After our performance in RWC 2011 it’s very important for us to make a statement in the PNC as there is no doubt – after the highs of 2007 – we were the most disappointing team at last year’s RWC,” said Male.
That statement has already begun, with the country’s second-string – the Fiji Warriors – excelling in the first two series of the IRB Pacific Rugby Cup 2012 in Australia and New Zealand, winning five of their six matches.
The PRC gives locally based players crucial exposure against development sides from Australia and New Zealand’s Super Rugby teams, and the Fijians – who were coached by Male – top the standings, with the Pacific Islands series to come later in the year.
“It’s an integral part of the development of the game for our top players and in particular our top local players who step up from the Pacific Rugby Cup and into the PNC,” explained Male.
“The PRC provides an excellent platform for our top local players to develop and grow their talents by taking on the best up-and-coming players in NZ and Australia,” says the former number 8, who won 15 caps for Fiji.
On whether any of the players who performed so well in the PRC may have forced their way into senior reckoning, Male is tight-lipped: “You’ll have to wait and see.”
Fiji begin their Pacific Nations Cup campaign against hosts and defending championsJapan before taking on Samoa, who won the countries’ Pool D clash in New Zealand last year. Fiji will then return home to face Scotland before wrapping up the PNC against Tonga in Lautoka on 23 June.
While the chance for revenge is motivation in itself, so is laying down an early marker for Rugby World Cup 2015 qualification.
Male, who played in the last Rugby World Cup hosted on British soil, in 1999, already has one eye on 2015.
“It’s always important to start as we mean to go on and, with ranking points at stake in every Test match we play, it means we have to be on top of our game each and every time we run out onto the pitch,” he says.
Male’s progress to the top coaching job has been a rapid one; this time last year he was preparing Fiji’s Under 20 side to challenge for the IRB Junior World Championship in Italy.
While he admits to being “surprised and honoured” by his appointment as national coach in January, he says he has had little time to dwell on the promotion, with both the Pacific Rugby Cup and Pacific Nations Cup in the first half of the year.
“We’ve had a great Pacific Rugby Cup and we must now turn the talent unearthed in the PRC into players who can perform at the highest levels on the international stage.”
Male is the first national head coach to progress from the Under 20 set-up and credits the Junior World Championship with his own success as well as that of the team, which achieved their best-ever finish in 2011.
“The JWC has been integral to my overall development as a national coach,” he says. “Having said that, I don’t think it’s enough to just go through the motions as a coach. You’ve got to be continually striving to get the best out of the talent you’re looking after and I believe our sixth-place finish at JWC 2011 was a reflection of what we can achieve if we set our minds to it.
“I firmly believe it won’t be too long before you see Fiji competing in the semi-finals or even higher.”
Male, who turns 49 just before the Pacific Nations Cup begins, says the JWC provides invaluable experience for coaches in Tier 2 nations, and despite the greater opportunities in larger nations he can see the benefits for them as well.
“In Tier 1 countries, coaches are spoilt for choice so there’s no need for them to use the JWC as a stepping stone – though I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt their careers to give it a bash,” he says.
Male says coaching the country whose shirt he wore proudly as an international is on a par with playing: “It’s just as exciting. There’s a great feeling in being able to take natural talent and mould into a team that I believe can become world-beaters.”
Results in June will show how they are progressing, but already Male is happy Fijian rugby is in good shape. “The future is bright for Fiji rugby, both on and off the field. It’s just an exciting time to be involved with Fiji rugby right now.”