Coming into the NRC this year, no-one really knew a lot about the Fijian Drua squad at all, and we’re still learning about them every week.
RUGBY.com.au had the chance recently to chat to Drua coach Senirusi Seruvakula, and see what he's done to unlock the success we've seen from his side.
Like their skipper John Stewart last week, ‘Seni’ Seruvakula is a quiet humble man, but his passion for rugby is immediately obvious, as is his love of coaching. And his laugh is as infectious as anything you’ve heard.
Observing the team train one afternoon, I watched him patrolling the training field with a whistle around his neck, ready for a short burst and a quick instruction,the first to congratulate the team when it does something well.
He’s really proud of what his team has achieved in its debut NRC season, because he knew they had the ability to play well as a team.
Seni, can you tell me how you have pulled your side together? Where have you pulled your players from?
These players are all local and they are playing provincial level back home. I have been scouting back home for many months and tried to put together an extended squad. Some players have been with me for the last three years with the Fiji Warriors and some are new to the environment.
We bring them in, a 55-member extended squad, and we tested them. After that we give them authority to do their own training monitored by the S&C coaches. Some of them cannot do that, because rugby back home is not professional and some of them say they don’t care.
So, it is up to the individual and we monitor them, and the results came in. These other guys put their hands up and the squad came down to 35. That 35 had some injury occur so down to 32 [for the NRC].
It’s a big squad. How many different teams in Fiji are represented?
There are eight different teams, which I picked them from. Then we trained together for two weeks before the competition started.
So you have had all the same short preparation issues that the Australian teams have had?
Short preparation and we don’t have the resources. There were some new players came in and we tested them. We played a game before we came in, to cap other players who hadn’t been capped, against the Tonga A team.
A lot of these guys were in camp in the capital city while the rest went to Lautoka to play against Tonga.
So effectively they are all capped Fiji players, capped internationally now?
Yes, that’s right.
Combinations would be a huge thing to relay on, then. Is it the Stallions club that are the champion team? Have you had to pull a lot of players from them.
There are 10 players here from their club [Fiji’s most successful club, Nadroga, based at Lawaqa Park, Sigatoka], and they have been playing together for many years.
That is good for us, and good for the other players that come from other teams to come and play with them.
Can you outline the provincial competition in Fiji?
Just a one run competition called the Skipper Cup. The top four plays in the semis, and we have another competition after that, the Farebrother [the Farebrother-Sullivan Cup].
It is the top eight including the champion, played as a challenge [a la the Horan-Little Shield, or the Ranfurly Shield in New Zealand].
It is right that some of the teams are attached to the fire brigade and some are army, is that right?
Yes, and police. A lot of the team is made up of the forces; the army, the police, the fire, and the prison officers.
So, there shouldn’t be any shortage of discipline?
Were they daunted facing Super Rugby players and near-Super Rugby teams like Perth and Canberra?
They are excited. They never put their head down when they know they are playing, like a Perth – they know it’s a Western Force team. We watch them every week in Fiji, the Super Rugby, but when these guys play against them they just want to smash them.
Were you concerned about the difference in the playing level initially, from what you guys were used to?
Certainly. it is a big challenge for us and to know we are going to play against Super Rugby players and the first-grade players, and even some of the Wallabies will be in those teams.
That is the emphasis I have been telling the boys, you don’t look at that, you look at them like human beings.
They’re just rugby players.
Yes, just rugby players the same as us.
You must be hugely proud of the way they have performed, but have they surprised you just how well they have performed at this level?
Not really, as I have been with them for four years and we a have a good record with the Fiji Warriors.
The first game, we learnt a lot from that and there was a lot of positive from that. When we play the second game we are starting to build up, and now it’s not stopping it keep on just building up.
What about the challenges you face being based in Fiji. It is a challenge going back and forward for a few weeks at a time?
It is. It is the biggest, longest tournament for a Fiji team to be in it.
It’s like a mini Super Rugby game, and after that you travel, and you must manage the players.
Those players that have been consistent, you have to keep them there, and if an injury occurs. It is a new curve for myself as coach and for the players.
They are playing a tough competition now, and the games are not going to be easy. It’s tough every week. It doesn’t matter if we’re winning, it’s tough out there and the pace of the game is so quick. We have to build up our own pace so that it will be hard for the Australian teams, too.
How are the players handling the travel component of it? Something that they would be used to.
They love the travelling but they hate the weather!
It was cold for us in Canberra! Everyone loves to travel together especially on the plane with new friendships amongst them, but it is only the weather that is a problem for us.
The Drua have started the competition beautifully so far, what do you put that down too?
It’s a massive improvement for these guys, and the people back home. They never realised or believed that this team would be doing so well.
For example, the game against Melbourne Rising we had 21 phases. Back home the maximum phase you can have in the champion teams is five or six.
Before they just drop the ball anyway?
Yes, drop ball or give the ball away. But it is a massive improvement for these guys, and we are very grateful for Australia for inviting us, but at the same time we are showcasing our talents.
And if not for this competition, then we would just be in Fiji and the scouts would come and take them away.
What is your coaching background?
I played for Fiji and played back home. I spent seven years in Brisbane playing for Brothers Rugby Club and this is my 12th year of coaching.
I love coaching; I started coaching in school rugby and I still love doing that and we won the school championship back home in Fiji.
I enjoy coaching and hope I do well this year for the NRC.
How have you found the step up as a coach?
A big step up. It’s another level and I am still learning the playing of this competition, and the turnaround and the training to be given to the boys. It’s all a learning curve for me.
What is the biggest coaching tip you have picked up along the way?
Just try my best not to lose... if I lose I get the chop
Have you had a chance to talk to many of the coaches around the competition?
Not really, not yet. I did have a good chat with the Melbourne Rising coach, Zane [Hilton], because we played together at the Brothers.
How do you manage expectations from here, both within the squad, and your supporters at home in Fiji and here in Australia?
Just need to calm down and keep on emphasising to the players what is ahead of them and keep our game pattern.
We are on top of the competition, and we have to come back down to earth again.
Can you go all the way?
We will do our best! (laughs)