Fiji suffer triple blow in bid for title
'They will be sorely missed. But I'm confident their replacements can do the job'
Fiji's bid to extend their domination at the IRB Sevens suffered a huge blow after three of their most fearsome forwards - cousins Viliame Satala and Apolosi Satala and Sireli Naqelevuki - were forced to pull out of the Hong Kong Sevens owing to injury and other commitments.
'They are all exceptional players and will be sorely missed. But at the same time I'm confident that their replacements can do the job. This is Hong Kong and they are all determined to do well,' said a defiant player-coach Waisale Serevi yesterday.
All three players were part of Fiji's Commonwealth Games squad and their absence will rob the crowd favourites of men who had marvellous ball-winning ability in the air as well as at the breakdown.
Hugely missed will be the tremendously strong Vili Satala. The Japan-based player had a huge say in Fiji's triumph at last year's World Cup. A big-striding centre in 15-a-side, Satala plays as a forward in sevens and his speed and skill gave Fiji a crucial edge from playing the game at breatktaking pace.
The loss of Naqelevuki will also be felt. The star forward is not only capable of winning possession, but has shown a voracious appetite for the opposition tryline this season having scored 18 tries to lie joint-third in the try-scorers' list in the IRB Sevens.
Fiji will hope to make up for their disappointment at the Commonwealth Games -where they had to settle for the bronze medal - by winning their first Hong Kong Sevens Cup title since 1999. Last year they were victorious at the World Cup Sevens.
'Yes we were disappointed about the Commonwealth Games but that is over. Now we are looking to win the Hong Kong Sevens. All our focus is now on this tournament and I'm sure the new boys will have something to prove,' said Serevi.
At 37, the master is still going strong. Asked how he felt yesterday after a strenuous training run, Serevi replied: 'As fine as the weather.' And remember, when it rained in 1992, Serevi and company walked on water as they glided away with the Cup championship.
Despite the loss of the experienced trio up-front, Fiji's national coach Wayne Pivac told the Fiji Times that he expected an England v Fiji Cup final.
'Sireli is obviously a huge loss but I still think we have a pretty good side and we stand a good chance of making the final,' said Pivac who coached Fiji to World Cup glory last year.
'I don't know too much about the other teams in the tournament but I still think Fiji and England are the teams to beat.'
Unlike last year, the current Fijian squad are all contracted to their union, giving the team a settled look.
And this has apparently worked because they are top of the standings having won in George and Wellington, leaving them 12 points ahead of England. Meanwhile, arch-rivals New Zealand are languishing in fourth place, a massive 34 points behind Fiji.
'Hong Kong is important to all of us. With 30 points on offer for the winner, it's crucial that we can consolidate our position at the top of the table. We got to retain our lead and hopefully extend it as our goal is to win the series for the first time,' Serevi said.
Ever since the IRB Sevens series began in 1999, Gordon Tietjen's New Zealand have dominated, being crowned champions in all six seasons. But the loss of a number of his core players to the Super 14 franchises - like Liam Messam and Tanerau Latimer - and with star Amasio Valence playing in Japan, Tietjens has been robbed of key manpower.
Captained by the steadfast Jone Daunivucu, Fiji will rely on players like William Ryder, Neumi Nanuku and Semisi Naevo to keep the momentum going. They have shared the spoils so far this season with England, who have also won two event. Like Pivac said, it could all boil down to a Fiji-England clash.
Fiji squad: Semisi Naevo, Dale Tonawai, Sakiusa Matadigo, Laisiasa Tora, Mosese Volavola, Jone Daunivucu (captain), William Ryder, Neumi Nanuku, Epeli Dranivasa, Filimoni Bolavucu, Lepani Nabuliwaqa, Waisale Serevi.