SAINT-ETIENNE, France — Fiji rugby icon Waisale Serevi has lauded his countrymen’s historic defeat of Australia, revealing there have been calls for a public holiday to mark the win back in the Pacific — a triumph he says this team can still improve on by reaching a maiden Rugby World Cup semifinal.
The Fijian people woke to the news of a first victory over Australia in 69 years early Monday morning, their heroes on the other side of the world in France completely deserving of a 22-15 win, which came amid the pressure of knowing their World Cup survival was on the line.
Serevi, who was a global rugby superstar in his time on the world sevens circuit, was in the crowd at the Stade Geoffrey-Guichard in Saint-Etienne, watching on with pride as his Fijian brothers etched their names into the nation’s rugby folklore.
Speaking exclusively to ESPN on Monday afternoon, Serevi lauded the team and its coaching staff, declaring it the greatest moment in the nation’s 15s rugby history.
“That was special, that was the best thing ever that we’ve come through in 15s rugby,” Serevi told ESPN. “To beat Australia in the World Cup, after 69 years, that itself is an achievement, and I want to congratulate coach Simon Raiwalui and all the coaches, and captain Wais [Nayacalevu] and all the boys, for doing a great job for Fiji.
“We are all so proud of the achievement and are looking forward to the next game.”
After such a heart-breaking first up defeat by Wales, the Fijians could have buckled under the weight of their task, knowing another loss would see their World Cup campaign over just seven days after it had begun.
But they instead took the game to Australia, dominating the Wallabies in nearly every facet of the game — two years of planning and graft paying off for Raiwalui and his staff.
“I believe that he’s been there in Fiji for a couple of years as the HPU manager, and we’ve seen a lot of players progress through and go up to the national level,” Serevi said of Raiwalui’s influence on Fijian rugby, first as the high performance manager and then, as of a few months ago, head coach.
“And he knows the players that he needs for the game plan that he wants to play. I can say that it was a difficult squad to pick, just because of the talent this year and he has done a great job. With his experience with all the teams he played for, and [coached] with Australia even, he knows the Australian team inside and outside, and he really did a good job. I am so proud of what he has done.”
After taking down England at Twickenham in the lead-up to the tournament — another piece of history — and then going within a late knock-on of beating Wales first up, the Fijians have put the rest of the World Cup on notice with the growth in their game.
And that has a lot to do with improved pathways for on-island rugby players and the introduction of the Fijian Drua, which Wallabies coach Eddie Jones highlighted after his side’s defeat, the Australian nominating Tevita Ikanivere as a player who typified what the Drua had done for Fijian rugby.
“Yes, talent-wise, I believe that we have the talent [to compete with anyone] in Fiji. But the only thing we struggled with over the years was because we always just meet for two weeks before a Test match,” Serevi explained.
“And the other teams, I’m talking about the Tier 1 teams, they have been playing together all these years; maybe minimum of five or seven years together, and for us a lot of times we just come in together two weeks before Test rugby, which is not enough to gel. Yes, we can create a team and a good team culture, but the machine, to keep it rolling on the field, it is always difficult to get it in two weeks.
“And now we have a very good pathway; we have under 18 schools rugby in Fiji and they have been very supportive of under 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18. And the best thing that ever happened to Fijian rugby in 15s is the Fijian Drua. When they played the Fijian Drua last year and this year, it gives the players a top level of competition week win, week out.
“And they have really done well, I congratulate [Drua] coach Mick Byrne and all his coaching staff, they’ve been training the team well. Last year we just started, and this year we were in the quarterfinals; who knows maybe next year we will be finalists and win the Super Rugby? Anything can happen.”
Asked how the win had been received back in the Pacific, Serevi said the celebrations were in overdrive.
“Everybody is absolutely crazy and happy – I don’t know what to say. I am lost for words; everybody is asking for a public holiday because we have beaten Australia for the first time in 69 years. Everybody is so excited and so happy that we have beaten Australia on Sunday.”
And they may not be done yet. Fiji have next week off, before they will then face Georgia in Bordeaux in a match that will go along way to determining their quarterfinal fate. Win that game and Fiji could be on course for another date with England — pending the result of Wales-Australia on Sunday — or a quarterfinal clash with any of Argentina, Samoa or Japan.
They are all games this current Fiji side can win. And Serevi, for one, believes there is more history to be made at this tournament yet.
“Oh yeah, I think if there is any time that Fiji can have the ability to get to a quarterfinal and then a semi, this is the one, this is a year,” Serevi told ESPN. “Because a lot of these players have been playing abroad for 10 years and they have great experience. If you [saw] yesterday, when Australia was attacking, we stole the ball in defence, we didn’t do that often in the last few years, we would run away from these breakdowns. But we stole their ball, and we did turnover balls, which is so exciting.
“And I believe the opportunity to go to the quarterfinal and the semi is here, it’s in front of us, but we need to take it a game at a time, a half of a time. We have a next game coming up and the boys will have a good rest, and then we’ll prepare for the next games coming up.
“But in the back of the mind is going to the quarterfinal and the semi.”