The Fijian Drua have already been the highlight of the 2017 National Rugby Championship, with their inclusion already a huge success for the game in Fiji and the NRC competition in Australia.
There aren’t often genuine ‘win-win’ situations in modern rugby at the professional level, but this is definitely one.
The Drua have been a joy to watch on the field, while off it, their presence in the competition has seen support and match attendances hit new levels.
Up first is Drua skipper John Stewart, who has shown himself to be a wonderful leader on the field this season, but more importantly, is a quality player capable of playing on the wing or in either centre position.
He’s probably been one of the form players from the Drua side so far, and wouldn’t look out of place on a Super Rugby roster.
Stewart is well spoken, albeit a man a few words. In a chat with RUGBY.com.au, he revealed the huge pride his players have for playing for their passionate, rugby-mad supporters here in Australia and back home in Fiji, and what he wants to Drua to do from here in the NRC, after their outstanding opening month.
How much are you guys enjoying this NRC experience?
“We’re really enjoying the experience, especially to be in the competition for the first time. But what’s most important in this team is to enjoy each other’s company on and off the field, so yeah, we’re really enjoying it so far.”
Did you hope to be leading the competition after the first month?
“We came into the competition as a team, we didn’t want to come into the competition to make up the numbers. We wanted to come in and compete, and that’s what we’ve been doing so far.”
How many of you play together regularly? What sort of combinations do you have through the side?
“There’s really tough competition within the squad, and that’s one thing that’s pushing the players to work hard.
“There’s only about five or six senior players [as in, capped Fijian Internationals] in this team, the rest are all new to this team and to this competition.”
How big a step up has it been for your players as individuals, coming from your provincial competition in Fiji?
“It’s a way, way step up. It’s about three to four steps up, even ten steps up, to be honest, especially playing against world class players of Super Rugby calibre and even Wallabies experience.”
What’s been the biggest adjustment for you guys, playing in the NRC?
“The biggest adjustment is the tempo of the game, the physicality, and most of all to be honest facing the weather and the climate (laughs).
“Coming from 32 or 34 degrees at home, and to be only 20 degrees here, it’s a big challenge for us, to get used to that.”
Have you found the task of running out against Wallabies and Super Rugby player daunting, or do you relish the chance to challenge yourselves against those players?
“We’ve seen it as a challenge, and as a great opportunity to play with such great players that we can only watch on TV. For some of the boys, it’s been a real dream come true, to come into this competition and play with world class players.”
How much of the NRC had you seen before this year? Did you know what you were coming up against?
“No, nothing. This year was the first. First game was the first time we’d seen the competition.”
The support for the Fijian Drua was been incredible, both in Fiji and here in Australia. Has that taken some getting used to for the team?
“It’s a very big morale booster for the boys to see Fijians here in Australia, to come out in numbers and see us play. So, it makes the boys really happy. They are really excited to get onto the field and play well.”
That must really spur you along in games – can you hear the supporters from out on the field?
“That is what has been really pushing us, especially on foreign territory.”
Do you feel a ‘duty’ to play well for your supporters, when they come to watch you in such strong numbers?
“As a team, that is one of the most important things we want to do, to compete as a team and for our supporters.
“Because our supporters back at home, even though they are not here with us, they support us in prayers.”
The Drua isn’t the national team, but you do feel like you’re representing Fiji, to a degree?
“It is, yes. Most of the boys feel that we are representing out country, so we want to play well in this competition for our country.”
What is the goal for the rest of the competition now?
“Goal for the competition is to win the competition.
“We’ll keep working hard as a team, put our heads down, keep working hard, and everything will fall into place.”
Doing these player and coach profiles each week has always been enjoyable, but we knew this season that interviewing the Fijian Drua guys was going to present both geographical and language challenges, to varying degrees.
But I’m hugely thankful to Drua and Fijian Rugby General Manager Chris Thomson, who helped make these interviews possible.