- Growing the game**
The international game is rapidly rising in profile, but Fiji’s impending step onto a much smaller stage could have the biggest effect on Pacific football in history.
By MICHAEL BLOK @michaelblok26
“We’ve shown we can mix it with anyone We’re not looking too far ahead It’s a long process but Fiji is moving in the right direction ” – Jayson Bukuya
THE future of rugby league in Fiji is looking as bright as their stunning beaches after the nation’s governing body received the news they’ve been waiting to hear.
In the same week Fiji scored a resounding 58-14 win over Lebanon in the Test arena, they’ve been approved to enter a side into the New South Wales Rugby League set-up, just like the PNG Hunters did with the Queensland Cup in 2013.
The new side, launching in 2020, will start out in the Ron Massey Cup – the state’s third-tier competition – with the intention of progressing to the Canterbury Cup the following season.
It’s a giant win for rugby league in Fiji, opening a door for local talent to progress to the code in Australia.
Winger Suliasi Vunivalu, who scored a double against the Cedars last Saturday, praised the decision to add a Fijian side to the NSW competitions.
“Obviously back home rugby union is our national sport, so for the local guys to get into the Ron Massey Cup is really good for rugby league. It’s going to open up paths for them to come to Australia,” Vunivalu says.
“The goal is the NSW (Canterbury) Cup. They’ve been trying for that for a couple of years now. It’s a big step to jump straight into that, so it’s good that we’ll have a Ron Massey Cup side and it’ll all start from there. Hopefully the year after we can make the NSW Cup.”
Fiji’s home ground will be either Suva’s ANZ Stadium or Lautoka’s Churchill Park, located about 20 minutes from Nadi. The team will consist of local talent and be coached by national coach Brandon Costin.
As well as the guaranteed benefit for Fijian rugby league, the NSWRL also view it as a way to strengthen the state-based competitions.
“It’s a massive boost, not just to the Ron Massey Cup but to all of our competitions,” NSWRL CEO David Trodden said.
“You see the boost that the Hunters have given the Queensland Cup competition, it creates an enormous amount of additional interest in the competition.
“The existing teams will really look forward to the opportunity to test themselves against Fiji, in Fiji. In terms of the impact it has on Fiji, there is every indication that having a formal pathway to a senior semi-professional competition is what Fiji Rugby League needs to continue their development. In terms of the development for the region, the importance is immeasurable.”
When it rains, it pours – and that’s the case for Fiji in a positive sense when it comes to rugby league announcements. Not only have they been included in the NSWRL set-up, they’ve been handed a match against the Australian Prime Minister’s XIII in Fiji this October.
The match against the Bati will be the first time since the fixture’s inception in 2005 that it won’t be played against Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby.
ARLC chairman Peter Beattie confirmed the PM’s XIII game will be moving around over the coming years in an attempt to grow the game in the Pacific.
“The Pacific is the fastest-growing area of rugby league in the world outside Australia,” Beattie says.
“I’d hope in 10 years to have strong Test teams for Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, PNG and New Zealand in our neck of the woods. There will be more options to play at the end of the year, plus Kangaroo and England tours.”
Fiji is also set to host a number of NRL trial matches over the next decade as part of an agreement with their government. The finer details, including which clubs will travel to the island nation, will be announced later this year.
Beattie says it’s an exciting time for the international game, and the success at the highest level will inevitably trickle down to domestic competitions.
“We’ll have really dynamic competitions and will also have the world Nines and the World Cup in 2021. Then we’ll work out where we go for the next one,” he says.
“The RLIF has gone through a major reform process with three independents coming on to shake it up. The international game is going to be better than ever before.
“If we grow the international game, that will grow the domestic game.”
Following the Bati’s giant win over the Cedars last Saturday, veteran Jayson Bukuya, who has played 11 Tests for Fiji, says there’s no reason the side can’t become a tier one nation in the coming years.
The Cronulla forward admits their squad is still building and has a long way to go before reaching the same heights as Australia, New Zealand and England – but the future is bright.
“Becoming a tier one nation is absolutely the goal,” Bukuya tells Big League.
“We’ve shown we can mix it with anyone. We’re not looking too far ahead and we know we’ve got to take it game by game with every Test that we get. It’s a long process, but Fiji is moving in the right direction
“We’ve seen the success of Tonga, and while we’re not here to replicate them, I believe we can also become one of the strong nations.”
Bukuya believes entry into the Ron Massey Cup next season will help the country on the international stage.
“It’s unreal for the game and itt’s very exciting for the game back in Fiji,” he says.
“It’s going to be unreal to watch that unfold. It’s a great stepping stone for players coming through.”
PHOTOS: NRLPhotos.com: Robb Cox (Vunivalu), Grant Trouville (Suva); David Rogers/Getty Images (Lautoka)