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Friday 24 November 2017

Second tier nations left to battle the odds

Fiji's team in Italy had 12 men playing in France or England

Jack McGrath after an Ireland rugby squad press conference at Carton House, Maynooth. Pic: Sportsfile
Jack McGrath after an Ireland rugby squad press conference at Carton House, Maynooth. Pic: Sportsfile

First world problems. Ireland have them. Should Bundee Aki have been capped like Richardt Strauss, Quinn Roux, Nathan White, Rodney Ah You, Jared Payne, and CJ Stander before him?

How come it took so long to have a sudden, serious attack of conscience? First world problem.

Will Munster's Tyler Bleyendaal, Rhys Marshall, Jean Kleyn, Connacht's Tom McCartney and Leinster's Jamison Gibson-Park and even James Lowe, three years from now, turn their backs on Ireland because of the furore? First world problem.

Why can't Joe Schmidt's winning Ireland play the same way as his winning Leinster? First world problem.

Will Leinster, Munster or Ulster ever scale the ultimate peak in The Champions Cup again? First world problem.

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Ireland is occupied by a mound of first world problems that don't add up to a hill of beans when set beside those lumped on top of the Tier 2 co untries, like their next opponents Fiji.

Last week, World Rugby announced an increased financial package to support the Pacific islands. Tier 2 problem.

Their High Performance Manager, Peter Horne, said: "In the 2016-19 cycle, World Rugby will invest an estimated £20.3m in programmes for Fiji, Tonga and Samoa which is an increase of 19 per cent on the last cycle.

"This programme is reaping benefits with the outstanding performances of the Flying Fijians this year, as well as the World Rugby-funded Fijian Drua, competing in Australia's National Rugby Championship as a pathway for local players."

Just think: Fiji's player pathway exists in another country, as the internal competition just doesn't cut it. That is a Tier 2 problem.

Their scrum-half against Italy, Frank Lomani, plays for Drua in the low-lying club competition in Australia.

The remaining 14 are employed in a variety of locations, predominantly in France and England,

Their best players leave home because they have to in order to get ahead.

That is a third world problem.

Backs Kini Murimurivalu (La Rochelle), Josua Toisova (Toulon), Jaie Vatubua (Pau), Timoci Nagusa (Montpellier) and forwards Leone Nakarawa (Racing 92), Semi Kunatani (Toulouse), Akapusi Qera (Agen) and Nemani Nagusa (Aurillac) are all to be found in France.

London Irish centre Asaeli Tikoirotuma and tight-head Manasa Saulo, Northampton Saints prop Campese Ma'afu and lock Api Ratuniyarawa go to work in The Premiership.

Out-half Ben Volavola toils for Melbourne Rebels and hooker Talemaitoga Tuapati is a lowly figure at Southlands in New Zealand's Mitre 1 0.

Rugby Union is the national sport in Fiji, as it is in New Zealand and South Africa. The population of the island was estimated to be 898,760 in 2016 and the financial limitations are suffocating.

For all of that, Fiji has a pool of players that rival any Tier 1 nation in terms of power and skill.

It is the more mundane aspects of the game, like set-piece scrum, lineout and maul, defence, organisation, proper international windows for real preparation that can immobilise their plans.

"They are much more conditioned than in years gone by," warned Ireland prop Jack McGrath.

"They have a lot of players playing in France and England. They are playing at a high-level week-in, week-out.

"We have to have our structure in place," he said.

"We have to have our discipline in place. We have to have our defence in place.

"If you let them get their offloads away, let them get into their flow, you are in serious trouble.

"We have to shut them down early, don't let them carry over tackles,

"We need to impose ourselves in the game - and early."

Otherwise, Ireland's first world problems could turn into a world of real pain.

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