How the Flying Fijians were grounded by Covid-19
This autumn was supposed to be a breakthrough season for Fijian rugby but with the news that their Autumn Nations Cup match against Scotland at BT Murrayfield has been cancelled it means all three of the Islanders’ Group B games in the tournament have been called off.
Sullied by scandal earlier this year, when their national union’s controversial former chairman Francis Kean was blocked from election to World Rugby’s ruling executive, and eventually relinquished his post, Fiji jumped at the invitation from the Six Nations to play as guests in this month’s new Autumn Nations Cup. “A historical achievement for Fiji,” is how John O’Connor, the Pacific islanders’ chief executive described it. “This is the type of matches we need - we have never played three tier-one teams in three weeks.”
They still have not played them. The self-styled “flying Fijians” are currently grounded by Covid-19, confined to their rooms in individual isolation in an otherwise empty four-star motel 20kms north of Saint-Etienne. A 46-strong squad returned five positive tests for the virus last week, including one for the superstar centre Semi Radradra, and on Monday of this week the number leapt to 29, comprising 22 players and seven management, although not Vern Cotter, the head coach who took over in the summer but has yet to take charge of a match.
The upshot so far is Fiji have forfeited their first two pool matches - against France last Sunday and Italy today - both by 28-0. With the Scotland match on 28 November also called off it will no doubt hand a 28-0 win to Gregor Townsend’s men. While the Fijians are holding out hope of fulfilling the “placing match” on 5 December against the bottom team from Group A, probably Georgia at Murrayfield, it could require standby players being called up.
In the same week that has seen a powerful documentary film, ‘Oceans Apart’ released by the campaigning former Samoa flanker Dan Leo, alleging corruption and exploitation of Pacific islands players down the decades, a picture has emerged of the undoing of this brave or maybe foolish attempt to push Fijian rugby forwards, from a country almost completely free of Covid-19.
The Fiji squad began gathering in Limoges in France from 25 October at the cost of the Fiji Rugby Union. Seven players had been with the ill-fated Barbarians squad in London the week before, while some came in from French clubs. A further contingent arrived from Fiji on 29 October and Radradra from Bristol on 3 November, but by then there had been six positive tests and a friendly with Portugal on 6 November was called off.
A squad source claims on 5 November the entire squad tested negative. But in any event it was only when they moved to Saint-Galmier near Saint-Etienne on Sunday 8 November that Fiji officially became part of the Autumn Nations Cup, and entered a bio-secure bubble. Within the next two days Radradra tested positive, followed by another four squad members later in the week.
So Radradra and his talented team-mates are now venturing outdoors for fresh air one at a time, while the squad’s medical team deal with mild symptoms among a small number of players.
“Morale is high and they are all coping,” O’Connor said. Mind you, he was speaking 10,000 miles away in Suva.
Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.