Fiji left the last World Cup with a glowing reputation having knocked out Wales in the pool stages before pushing the eventual champions South Africa to the brink in a pulsating Quarter-Final and becoming everyone's second team in the process. Things appeared to be very much on track again a year out from the 2011 tournament after they returned from a European tour hugely encouraged by a landmark draw against Wales in Cardiff and honourable defeats against France and Italy.
With both the Welsh and the Springboks featuring in their group as well as Pacific Island rivals Samoa, hopes were high of at least a repeat of their 2007 exploits. However, things went far from according to plan and they left the tournament having dropped to their lowest IRB ranking since the system began after fairly comprehensive defeats against all three and with only a less than convincing win over Namibia to show for their efforts.
Born and raised in Australia to a Tongan father and a Fijian mother, prop Campese Ma'afu was experiencing his first World Cup for the Flying Fijians. The middle of three talented rugby brothers “older brother Salesi represented Australia at the tournament while younger brother Kuki has featured for Tonga at Sevens“ Campese (named after flying Wallaby winger David) still can't quite put his finger on why Fiji underachieved in New Zealand. He tells their story¦
Game One - Fiji 49 Namibia 25
Six tries to two and a bonus point win has to be considered as a good start to the competition but the manner of victory was far less convincing than the scoreboard suggests. What was your take on the game?
Campese Ma'afu: "The Flying Fijians did go into the game with a plan to play off the ball, execute set pieces and mainly play what was in front of us. We did accomplish sixty to seventy percent of that but we still had more room for improvement and can play to an exceptional structure. It was just little mistakes that let us down."
You weathered an early storm from Namibia “particularly from the fly-half, who was dropping goals from everywhere“ and led 32-15 at the break. Did you go into the break expecting to go away from them in the 2nd half?
CM: "We went into the sheds and spoke about how we could work off the lead and to keep at it. To shut down all the options they were stabbing at, use the ball more in attack rather than taking contact and more importantly defending their wide and short plays."
So, what happened? Was it a case of them stepping it up significantly or a loss of intensity from the Fijians?
CM: "I thought we tried to push things to the limit with fifty/fifty passes and more importantly, our discipline let us down in certain areas. There was definitely no loss of intensity."
Given the ten man game Namibia adopted in the 1st half, were you surprised to see them run the ball a bit after the break?
CM: "I think if we hadn't coughed up so much possession, we would have done a lot of damage. The stats say they were more convincing but at the same time our defence was more convincing - six tries to two with a bonus point."
It was a bit of an opening week of surprises with the so called 'lesser' nations all shaking “ if not actually beating" greater' opposition. Do you agree with the notion that the gap is narrowing across the top 20 nations in world rugby or is that just wishful thinking?
CM: "I totally agree. Countries all over the world have the passion and the pride, just like the top nations of rugby."
A great 4 try haul from Vereniki Goneva must have been pleasing for the team and for him personally and along with the likes of Naipolioni Nalaga, they showed glimpses of what Fiji are capable of with ball in hand didn't they?
CM: "Oh, definitely. It was a well deserved man of the match performance by 'Niki' who worked so hard in the lead up and definitely stood up for us and backing him on the other side, 'Narps' showed why he is one of Fiji's best wingers."
Game Two - Fiji 3 South Africa 49
Four years previously, Fiji had scared the living daylights out of South Africa in the Quarter-Final and given this aging Springbok side's struggles against Wales in their first match, there were high hopes for another close encounter. Instead, the Boks controlled pretty much every part of the game and even held you tryless. What went wrong?
CM: "This game was definitely a bad performance. We let ourselves down in a few areas where we should have lifted the pace but just could not keep it rolling. At the same time, the Springboks were just too good and too strong for sixty-five to seventy minutes of the game."
They're known for their ferocious pack and precision kicking game but they actually threw the ball about and scored some exciting tries. Was that something you weren't really prepared for?
CM: "We planned to do practically the same thing they did but they executed well. We just defended around the ruck too often rather than out wide."
What was it like for you to pack down against the likes of John Smit, Tendai 'The 'Beast' Mtwarira and Jannie Du Plessis?
CM: "Definitely one of the strongest front rows I have packed down against and also in world rugby. They just had that mongrel mentality about them that they use as a tactic to outmuscle opponents. It was an awesome experience."
The Boks were good with the ball when they had it but it was their defence that really made it a long day at the office for Fiji. They were very hard to break down weren't they?
CM: "They did defend well for all eighty minutes. They attacked breakdowns which lead to us turning over possession."
Despite the loss, your set-piece held-up pretty well and you only lost one scrum and one line out off your own ball. Do you think that's an area that Fiji have improved on in recent years?
CM: "Oh, for sure, Fiji have improved dramatically in these areas if you ask me. The likes of Deacon Manu in the scrums and Wame Lewaravu in the line outs were awesome leaders who worked hard to keep the pack working hard at set piece time."
Half-Time Quick Hits
Best match not involving Fiji?
CM: "Tonga vs France."
Six of the best players of the tournament (three from the Northern Hemisphere, three from the Southern Hemisphere)?
CM: "Jamie Roberts, Thierry Dusautoir and Martin Castrogiovanni; Brad Thorn, David Pocock and James Horwill."
Best emerging individual talent?
CM: "Toby Faletau of Wales."
CM: "Any of Vereniki Goneva's four against Namibia!"
Best team other than the All Blacks?
Ones to watch in 2015 players and/or teams?
CM: "Toby Faletau, Manu Tuilagi and look out for the Wallabies."
Game Three - Fiji 7 Samoa 27
Every right minded rugby fan looks forward to a clash between the Island nations as it's usually a recipe for a feast of flowing football and plenty of tries but this game didn't quite pan out that way did it?
CM: "Samoa pounced off our mistakes and again, we were left pulling our hair out and frustration got to us overall. We just didn't play the island style rugby we normally do and neither did Samoa. It must have been the heat of the moment of World Cup fever."
Your scrum got wheeled only 2 mins into this game, did that send a message out to Fiji early as to the way the Samoans were approaching this one?
CM: "We were very aware of how they were approaching the game. The scrum got wheeled on my side, I just tried to take my opponent on the outside shoulder which he attacked inwards and was too good and too strong and caught me on the backfoot."
This was the first time in Rugby World Cup history that Fiji had failed to score any points in the 1st half of a game. However, stats wise across the eighty minutes, you had greater possession and spent nearly 2 and a half more minutes inside their 22. Was it a problem for this side converting pressure into points?
CM: "Yeah, I guess we had the right ideas and plans in place but we just tended to over do things at that split second. I believe it was our mistakes that let us down."
While stats are sometimes great indicators, they can be interpreted in different ways. For instance, they made 129 tackles to your 87 in the match, is that an indication of the extra work they had to do to contain you or that you didn't work hard enough across the park to stop them?
CM: "I think it was a combination of both; them working hard and us not doing enough to stop them."
Samoa were prepared to sacrifice some traditional 'Island' flair to put a greater emphasis on a smart kicking game, contesting the breakdown and taking the points “ tournament rugby in effect. Fiji and Tonga seemed to go down a similar path in this World Cup but perhaps to a lesser extent. Is the way the game is going in Polynesia and if so, will we ever see that fluid, running rugby played in quite the same way again?
CM: "Samoa did play some smart rugby but - with a bit of respect to Tonga and Fiji - they also produced the goods with Tonga's win over France who went on to the final and Fiji showing they still had flair against Namibia. So, yes, I believe there will be more running rugby to see from the islands - if they are given more games at this level."
Game Four - Fiji 0 Wales 66
What can you say about this one? Wales were favourites given their form but there was an expectation that Fiji would go out of the competition with a bang and maybe give their fans something to take home from the tournament but once you fell behind in the 6th minute, there only looked like being one winner?
CM: "We were definitely looking to go out with a win to finish off our campaign. We made a lot of changes to the side and we made a few changes to our plays and so on but we just couldn't manage to get on the roll we were hunting for."
Your line out had been one of the positives to take from the previous three games but the first try came from a mistake which left Welsh centre Jamie Roberts to waltz through untouched didn't it?
CM: "Our line out was certainly something we worked well at during the lead up and also resulted in a great outcome in the pool games but you can never get a perfect line out. Mistakes do happen and unfortunately, we didn't react quickly enough."
Again, stats wise, the numbers don't add up to the final scoreline. Fiji had 62% of territory, spent twice as long in the opposition 22 and conceded 4 fewer penalties but ended up scoreless. Should this have been “ certainly not a win “ but a much closer result?
CM: "The stats are what they are I guess. We just didn't take the opportunities that were there for the taking. We didn't connect well enough to create tries, but the effort was there. We went in with the mindset to win but we just didn't keep composed and patient."
It must be disheartening to have participated in Fiji's biggest ever World Cup defeat. Were you surprised by how much Wales had improved since your draw with them in Cardiff 11 months previously?
CM: "Every loss is disheartening, especially when you just want to do the best you can for your country. They had definitely improved dramatically and they became one of the best contenders for this World Cup."
Can you put your finger on what exactly went wrong at this tournament? What caused Fiji to go backwards from that European tour last November where you earned such positive results?
CM: "Only the Flying Fijians 2011 Rugby World Cup squad can answer that as a team."
After the Welsh game, (former) assistant coach Greg Mumm said "There's a number of areas in which we've failed at this World Cup. It's very disappointing for the players and the people of Fiji . What areas was he referring to specifically?
CM: "That can only be answered by him as everyone has their own view. If you ask me, I'd say we improved more than we failed."
Obviously, you would have been disappointed as a playing group with your results but I guess, feeling like you may have let down the many thousands of passionate Fijian fans was hard to deal with as well?
CM: "Oh mate, everyone wants to do well for Fiji and get the results we worked so hard for. But, I guess its back to the training paddock where we have to work harder to get some satisfaction for our beloved Fijians."
What's your take on the mistreatment of the lower ranked nations in terms of rest days between matches - do you agree that things need to change for England 2015?
CM: "Yes, there definitely needs to be changes for England 2015. Just for all teams to be treated equally would be a massive improvement alone."
What has to happen in Fijian rugby over the next 4yrs to ensure that they're in a better position to compete at England 2015?
CM: "Keep up the hard work and faith and maybe we could have some of our best Fijians who are playing all around the world come back and represent their roots."
What did you think of the tournament experience as a whole and does New Zealand deserve another World Cup in the future?
CM: "Yeah, I can't complain. New Zealand is what it is and our support was awesome overall but nah, no more World Cups over there. Change it up I say - ha ha!"
Let's finish on a positive note. Despite the results, aren't you amazed that you just played 4 games in a Rugby World Cup - it must have been a dream come true?
CM: "Yes and hopefully I can do it all again in four years time. All praise to God for his blessings on me and my family, I can now sit back in twenty years time and tell my grandkids that I played at a World Cup. As for Fiji 'Tabu Soro' (never give up)."
This article was previously published on ruggamatrix.com