Warren Gatland’s side have the best facilities in the world in which to prepare. For Fiji, it’s a different story but who will win at the Millennium Stadium this weekend?
This weekend’s Millennium Stadium showdown will bring together some of the haves and have-nots of world rugby when Fiji face Wales.
In one corner, you have Warren Gatland’s Wales who have some of the best facilities in the world at their disposal. The luxurious Vale of Glamorgan complex has modern methods including altitude and cryotherapy chambers and state of the art training pitches.
Team Wales have regular training camps and a plethora of backroom staff designed to analyse innovative instruments like GPS data.
In contrast, Fiji only have the resources to wire up five players to such analysis system and just one member of staff qualified to analyse the results.
The Fijians are operating on about £650,000 a year covering coaching staff, touring and everything else. This roughly matches the salaries of Wales’ top two paid players.
They also only have a couple of camps together a year and one of their main stars, Vereniki Goneva, missed last weekend’s 40-15 defeat against France because of visa issues.
So the South Sea Islanders continue to be among the poor relations of world rugby. But coach John McKee refuses to be downbeat.
“People talk about our lack of preparation but that’s life and we have get on with things,” he said. “This is our situation and these are the number of days we have together so these are our resources. If you’re looking over the fence and seeing the next door neighbour who has the big fancy swimming pool and you only have the little pump up one for the kids, you won’t be happy.”
McKee added: “But if the kids have a lot of fun in that smaller swimming pool then that’s OK.
“I’m a little bit envious of the top tier nations and it would be nice to have a bit more resources and back-up. But we run the best programme we can. Programmes are not all about money, it’s about what you do with them and what you achieve.”
What Fiji do have over most other rugby nations is their devotion to rugby.
“In western civilisation there is a lot of competition for leisure time and rugby is just one thing people can do,” said McKee.
“In Fiji, the Pacific lifestyle is much simpler and rugby forms an integral part of their society. On Monday to Friday they still work and maybe take their produce to the market. Sunday is the religious day but Saturday is all about rugby. In the summer there are sevens tournaments all over the place and 15-a-side events in the winter.”
This Sevens obsession has proved one of their major Achilles heel in the longer discipline. It’s something Fiji are working hard to eradicate as they aim to embrace both games.
“This requires a bit of strategy and from what I have seen in the past, that has not been there,” added McKee. “Players have either been told it is sevens or the 15-a-side. But in this current squad there are a number of people who have made their names in sevens before going onto getting professional contracts in the 15-a-side game.
“Ben Ryan (Fiji Sevens coach) and I work together a lot and I help out with certain aspects. We see more chances now for players to go between the two games and we will work more towards the crossover.”
The other thing associated with Fijian rugby is the swing between the sublime and ridiculous results, a trait they share with Wales.
In 2007, Fiji stunned the rugby world with their stunning pool victory in Nantes which knocked out Gareth Jenkins’ Welsh side before the South Sea Islanders travelled to Marseilles and almost produced a shock quarter-final victory over eventual winners South Africa.
But just four years later Warren Gatland’s Wales gained their World Cup revenge with a 66-0 drubbing in New Zealand which typified a disastrous campaign for Fiji.
McKee, who only took over last year, insisted he is building a different culture from the class of 2011.
“This is a very different side,” added McKee. “That 2011 World Cup campaign for a number of reasons wasn’t good for Fiji. On paper they had quite a good side but for whatever reasons they didn’t get it right.
“If the team does not quite gel that can affect the performance. I was not part of the set-up but think that’s what happened. This Fiji team is very strong as a group. My coaching style is to rely heavily on my senior players to consult in and out of the camp.”
Not that Wales aren’t used to their own in-fighting as McKee mischievously points out.
“Looking from afar and reading media and the Internet, there always seems to be a clash in Wales about the way they want to play the game,” he added. “There also always seems to be a conflict in Welsh rugby between the regions and the national body. That can’t be good for the players.
“That’s the challenge in the northern hemisphere, for the professional and international game to work together. They seem to have incredibly close results against the southern hemisphere sides, but Wales just come out on the wrong side. Maybe there’s a little bit of a psychological barrier there for them.”
But McKee has been impressed with the job that his fellow New Zealander Gatland has performed over here.
“Gats is a very good coach who is doing a top job and has a very impressive organisation,” he said.
“He is his own man and knows the way he wants to play the game. Looking at the Welsh game their defence is very hard to break down and in attack they have good finishers.
“They will be very direct and look for mismatches and overlaps. So we will have to be on top of our game this weekend.”
Fiji arrive in Wales on the back of the 40-15 defeat for France in Marseilles despite threatening just after the interval.
“It was game on after half-time when we scored and we felt we had the French team rattled,” added McKee. “But as happens when you are playing good teams they scored and turned the screw. The game went from being tight to going away from us in a matter of minutes.
“That’s a lesson we have to learn about playing good sides. We need to play well for longer than 60 minutes because good teams at this level will take advantage of that 20 minutes we are poor. But there are enough positives to come from last week and you need that for the players psychology.”
And McKee warned Fiji will be stronger this week having had more time together and fielding a team full of Top 14, Super Rugby, Aviva Premiership and Guinness Pro12 stars.
They have also been able to select an even stronger backline including giant centres Nemani Nadolo and Vereniki Goneva and Ospreys star Josh Matavesi at outside-half.
“We’ve had that extra week together in training and I’ve noticed there is more of a buzz and flow,” he said.
“We also have a stronger side this week with the additions to our backline. We have Nadolo coming into the centre and Josh at outside-half who we are looking to give us more direction and variety. That midfield has to come together quickly but you look at these players, they have that capability.
“So it’s a good blend of experience and power combined with that bit of X-factor.”
But McKee knows all that is irrelevant if Wales dominate the Fijians at the set-piece.
“Our scrum operated quite well against France and that’s a big focus for us,” said McKee. “At all levels of rugby you have to win the ball and those principles have always been there. That’s what you need to do to have the chance to express yourself. It does not matter how talented your players if you can’t give them the ball.”
But if the Fijian flair giants are given their chance to shine, will we see a repeat of Nantes 2007? McKee smiles.
“Look, we have a talented side although we are perhaps not at top of our game yet,” he added. “We’ve the potential for improvement and we’ll be a lot better this week than we were against France because we’ve been together for that extra week. And the players were stung by the France defeat because their expectation of performance was high.
“They are hurting a bit and that is reflected in the work they have put in this week. It’s going to be a tough and challenging game.
“Looking at Wales last week I thought they were very good against Australia and we know it’s a big challenge. But it is a match we can do well in as long as we are at our best for 80 minutes. We know Wales will punish us if we are not.”