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Fiji struggle as ‘vultures’ prey on top players

By Michael Sadlier

Inoke Male has been rather busy of late.

The Fiji coach has not only been trying lift morale after last weekend’s thumping at the hands of England — a situation not helped by their second half collapse which saw them narrowly lose at Gloucester earlier this week — but he has also been expounding to anyone who will listen on his country’s huge problems on the international stage.

There are many issues surrounding the game in Fiji, but the essential difficulty now presenting itself is that the islanders’ best players are no longer accessible to the international side.

A case in point cropped up on this tour when star second row Jone Quovu withdrew claiming he was injured but then togged out for his club Racing Metro.

The problem is not confined to Fiji — Samoa and Tonga have also been widely asset stripped — but the issue with ‘disappearing’ players has been put in powerful focus during this tour by Male.

Earlier this week, Male upped the ante by turning his ire on clubs in England and France and then providing a helpful sound-bite to illustrate his point.

“They are taking our young players like vultures,” Male said, while explaining how Fiji’s talent is sourced early by scouts and then given a plane ticket out of the islands and, thanks to the big spending clubs, potentially out of the international shop window.

Of course, it is a free market and players rightly wish to up their earning power and boost their careers, yet the extent to which Fiji, Samoa and Tonga have been pillaged for their notably hard running and huge hitting talent has inflicted enormous damage on the game in these places while world governing body the IRB have tended to look the other way.

The net result has been the marked decline of Fiji’s 15-man side — sevens is still very much their forte — which has clearly manifested itself on this tour by the unavailability of many of their players currently plying their trade in the northern hemisphere.

Thirty Fijians are earning a crust in Europe’s top three leagues, but only 10 have been included on this tour with Gloucester’s Akapusi Qera and Glasgow’s Nicola Matawalu being prominent last weekend at Twickenham.

Players have not been released but, even more worryingly, some have simply chosen not to be part of their national squad. Racing Metro’s teenage back Virimi Vakatawa turned down the chance to play for Fiji while Clermont’s Noa Nakaitaci also opted out.

It seems that the IRB may now attempt to further pressure the clubs to permit greater release of these players via some form of amnesty and though this is a potentially positive move, according to Male, what is really needed are more frequent international matches against top level teams.

This, he reckons, will help turn things around and finally persuade some of their top players to nail their colours to Fiji’s mast instead of focusing purely on who pays their wages.

There is a long way to go though and being tanked by England and then playing a non-international against an Ireland XV will hardly help win the hearts and minds.

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