International coaches come and international coaches go, more so in the Pacific Islands than anywhere else, but John McKee has proved his staying power with Fiji. The New Zealander took over as head coach of the Flying Fijians in 2014, he is taking the boys to the World Cup in Japan next year and his experience with this squad of players is beginning to pay dividends.
Fiji, who play Scotland at Murrayfield on Saturday, are ranked tenth in the world, two places higher than they were before the 2015 World Cup, and even that may under-sell the island nation. McKee highlights the problems with gaining ranking points when a team like Fiji only plays six Tests per year while Scotland might have double that number. Four rankings places separate the two teams but Fiji won the last time they met, in Suva in the summer of 2017, and knocking off a tier one nation away from home is at the top of McKee’s wish list.
“It’s a very important November tour for us, it’s important that we get some good results away from home and with also one eye towards RWC19,” he said – like everyone else McKee is looking ahead to the World Cup. “This is our last assembly before out World Cup preparation when we get back together in July of next year. So, yeah, a very important Test match series for us.
“Leading into the World Cup we will have a run of ten to 11 weeks when we will have a series of games. We’ll assemble at the start of July for two matches against the New Zealand Maori then we will play three rounds of the Pacific Nations Cup and we will finish off with games against Samoa and Tonga as our final two preparation games. But this will be the last time we will be together until we meet in Suva in July.
“We have an incredibly gifted group of athletes, some great rugby players – both forwards and backs have a special talent to play the game. But having talented players is one thing, we have a lot of work to do between now and next year to get the best performance from this talented group.
“Having been coaching with Fiji for a full World Cup cycle, I know that at this point, about 12 months from the World Cup, we are far, far ahead of where we were before the 2015 World Cup so we are in much better shape but we have a lot of work to do.”
Fiji are renowned for the excellence of their back play – Niko Matawalu can only make standby for the squad – so it is something of a shock to realise that two of their highest profile names are to be found amongst the forwards. Former Glasgow lock Leone Nakarawa, now playing alongside Finn Russell at Racing 92, is world class but so too is the current Edinburgh No.8 Viliame Mata who has been the stand out player in Scotland this season.
But if you expected McKee to sit “Bill” Mata down and pick his brains for the inside track on Scottish rugby you will be disappointed.
“Viliame has made an incredible transformation from being predominantly a sevens player to being a world class XV player in about 18 months,” says the coach.
“I watched that [Champions Cup] game against Toulon and I thought he was outstanding the weekend before against Montpellier. He is developing as a world-class No.8 and, playing up there with Edinburgh, Viliame is very familiar with the Scotland squad, he knows their strengths and weaknesses quite well but we are focusing on our game. It’s what we do that is most important. Yes, we look at the opposition but 80 per cent of what we do is on our game and getting the best from our players.”
McKee is not only targeting that tier one scalp on the road but he is also using this tour to give greater depth to his squad across the board. After Scotland, Fiji play against Uruguay (in Gloucester) and France in successive weekends.
McKee travels regularly to Europe where the bulk of his players play to give him face time with them but he also employs a stand in, assistant John Pryor, to do the same and the tactic appears to be paying dividends.
The boss reports that the players coming into the camp they held in the south of France last week were better conditioned than ever and that is half the battle.
“International coaches have to top their players up [conditioning] to be competitive at the highest level of the international game.”
With the pinnacle of international rugby vanishingly small – only four teams have a realistic tilt at the World Cup – Fiji are a tier one nation in waiting. Given the bulk of their diaspora to choose from, increased finance and more time together it seems only a matter of time before McKee gets that win away from home that he craves. Could it occur next weekend at Murrayfield?
It seems a little unlikely given Scotland’s recent improvements but Gregor Townsend’s fast and unstructured game plan does play to Fiji’s strengths and McKee is predicting a humdinger.
“We approach every Test match with the belief that we can win the game,” insists the Kiwi. “We have had success over Scotland at home but it’s important for us to nail some results against tier one teams away from home because [to achieve] success in the World Cup… we are going to have to beat tier one teams away from Fiji.
“Scotland [are] transitioning their game, they will certainly try to play an up-tempo game against us. There are two teams with a positive attitude to play, it makes for an exciting game, I expect, next week in Edinburgh.”