'The foundations for sustained Fijian performance are now in place'

Fiji’s performance at the recent World Cup is not easy to quantify for the players, coaching staff or even general manager Geoff Webster.

It will be remembered, perhaps unfairly, for the loss to Uruguay when the team had been heavily rotated to deal with a short turnaround after their opening loss against Australia. Although another defeat wasn’t in the script, it didn’t have any tangible effect on Fiji’s campaign.

The Pacific nation still finished third, thus securing automatic qualification for the 2023 World Cup, and even if they had won that Uruguay game, they would still have finished behind Wales and Australia in the top two spots.

Fiji were comfortably a level or two above Georgia in their 45-10 win over the European side and they were well and truly in their contests with Wales and Australia, the latter where they were very unlucky not to see a red card given to Wallaby Reece Hodge in the first half. It was a moment that could well have swung the outcome in a different direction.

There was significant pre-finals hope of a first quarter-final appearance since 2007 and had minor decisions gone Fiji’s way, they may well have made it. Instead, the loss to Uruguay coloured their campaign in a way that is arguably not representative of the performances the side put in.

“Our preparation was excellent and the preparation smooth. But the reality is that despite three strong performances, we blew it against Uruguay and ultimately failed to achieve our goal of going deep into the playoffs,” said Webster.

The Australian is now set to relinquish the role of general manager at the Fiji Rugby Union despite the FRU being keen to keep hold of him. Having spent three years in the role – twice as long as any other ex-pat has managed – Webster’s priority now has to be his wife and children, although he will continue to do the job remotely from Sydney until the FRU can find his successor.

“I’ve put everything into driving Fijian rugby, but I’m simply not willing to miss another day of my kids growing up. The family spent a great year here with me in 2018, but I already feel a lot of guilt about not being present for them and they deserve to have their dad around.”

It spells the end of an exciting and memorable chapter in Webster’s career, one which has seen him bring about a multitude of positive changes to Fijian rugby, much of which has laid a foundation for future success and is hidden behind the recent progress of the senior sides.

Webster was the driving force behind the creation of the Fijian Drua side and their involvement in the National Rugby Championship in Australia. The Drua made the semi-finals in their debut campaign in 2017, won a grand final against Queensland Country in 2018, and again made the playoffs in 2019 despite having over 20 players unavailable due to the World Cup in Japan and the Military World Cup.

The side has produced and refined players such as Alivereti Veitokani (London Irish), Frank Lomani (Melbourne Rebels) and Luke Tagi (Stade Francais), as well as providing an opportunity for current on-island players to play at a competitive level and push their cases for senior international selection.

Under Webster’s oversight, the under-20 side were able to secure promotion back to the World Rugby U20 Championship in 2018 and that success was followed up by Fiji avoiding relegation from the competition in 2019. In making a funding case to quadruple the size of Fiji’s national academy, Webster enabled Fiji to develop players on the islands that many other tier two nations have not been able to. That will fuel the necessary exporting of talent into professional programmes around the globe that will underpin the Flying Fijians future.

This was on show when Fiji avoided relegation from the Championship earlier this year, despite having lost a number of key individuals from their 2018 campaign. The void created by the likes of Vilimoni Botitu and Meli Derenalagi, who both graduated to the Fiji 7s side and made the HSBC World Series all-star team as rookies, was filled by the emergence of talents such as Tevita Ikanivere and Osea Waqa, both of whom are in line to make their first senior international appearance this weekend against the Barbarians.

Combined with the success of the Fijian Warriors side, who have won the last three Pacific Challenge Tournaments, Webster and Fiji have been able to create a production line of talent that can be capped at A level, tied to Fiji moving forward and identified as future contributors at the senior level.

“These teams are critical to Fiji’s future and we are blessed to have some excellent local staff driving them. But until Fiji has a professional team based on island playing in a southern hemisphere tournament, the only way we can stay in the hunt with the bigger nations is to have as many players starring for big clubs in big competitions around the world.

“The cold reality is that it is a numbers game – we need to graduate players offshore and hope that enough of them thrive so that the Flying Fijians have the depth required to compete. And Japan proved to me that the current depth isn’t adequate, which is why we are already looking at depth charts for 23 and 27.”

The pathway has been built and refined under Webster’s guidance so as not to just provide a temporary boost to the Flying Fijians, but to give them the underpinning foundations for consistent, sustained success at the highest level. After all, that is the pinnacle of professional rugby.

At that level, Fiji have enjoyed their fair share of success, despite the relative disappointments of the World Cup. Under head coach John McKee, the nation chalked up three wins over tier one opposition (France in 2018, Scotland and Italy in 2017) in the last two years and they were also close to taking the scalp of Ireland in 2017. They have also enjoyed success in the Pacific Nations Cup having won four-straight titles since 2015, with Japan’s win in 2019 ending the streak as Fiji committed to preparing for the World Cup rather than prioritise their annual tournament.

A major component of this success has been the funding that Webster helped to secure from World Rugby in order to provide Fiji with a world-class technical coaching staff and access to their diaspora that they needed to build a deeper and more competitive squad, alongside their star individuals.

“The foundations for sustained performance are now in place. A good core of the Flying Fijians will be returning in 2023, and I expect a good number of young prospects to kick on and make their mark. But much will depend on decisions made at board tables across the world in 2020. The state of the game is quite febrile at the moment but I can’t help but think that a vibrant, professional Fiji can only enhance the code globally. I know our board are hungry for success”

Away from the pitch, insiders suggest Webster’s influence was also felt beyond Fiji in forums such as World Rugby’s Pacific Island working group, a body set up in order to improve the situation that the Pacific Island nations find themselves in. He also brokered a professional player agreement between the FRU and Pacific Rugby Players Association, the first of its kind in the islands.

While the Samoan and Tongan unions continue to struggle with accusations of mismanagement and ineffective use of funding, Webster has helped diverge Fijian rugby from that path and make the set-up a far more professional and efficient entity. That Fiji, alongside Japan, are now knocking on the door of involvement in an annual tier one tournament, is a mark of the work he has done over the past three years.

With Webster now set to return to Australia, a nation still reeling from its recent controversies and a poor showing at the World Cup, he would seem to be exactly the sort of administrator needed to help turn around Rugby Australia and get the Wallabies back to being one of the top Test-playing nations in world rugby.

If not a role with Rugby Australia, the vacant CEO position at the Waratahs would be another good fit for the MBA-qualified Webster, a man who not only has a track record of turning around an underperforming organisation and maximising the resources they have at their disposal, but a highly successful commercial career prior to joining the FRU.

Wherever he does eventually end up, the shoes that he has left to fill at the FRU are substantial ones. Fijian rugby is in a very positive place moving forward thanks to Webster’s work over the last few years, but the FRU will have to be diligent in their search for a new general manager or that good work will be left to unravel and become forgotten.