Written by John Davidson
Tonga were the darlings of the 2017 World Cup, knocking off New Zealand and pushing England all the way in an epic, drama-charged semi-final.
They have continued that momentum since with history-making wins over Australia and Great Britain last year, and are now considered one of the top countries in the world.
At the same time Fiji has been quietly going about its business, making the final four of the past three World Cups with little limelight. In 2008 it was a young Jarryd Hayne, along with Akuila Uate, Ashton Sims, Wes Naiqama and Jayson Bukuya, taking the Bati all the way to the semi-finals against the Kangaroos.
Five years later at Wembley it was a meeting again with the green and gold. This time Fiji was led by Petero Civoniceva, with the likes of the Sims brothers Ashton and Tariq, the Naiquama brothers Wes and Kevin, and the likes of Semi Radradra, Marika Koroibete and a young Api Koroisau.
In 2017 it was another semi-final against the Aussies. Hayne was back, alongside Siliasi Vunivalu, Uate, Sims, Koroisau and a young Viliame Kikau. Three World Cups, three semi-finals, three meetings with the Kangaroos. What might have happened had Fiji not come up against Australia every time in the final four?
If the Bati had drawn New Zealand or England on one of those occasions, would they have made a final? Quite possibly.
People are quick to forget that the Pacific nation sensationally defeated the Kiwis four years ago in Wellington. In a tight and tense tussle, two penalty goals were enough to knock David Kidwell’s sorry New Zealand side out of the tournament. It was a history-making result.
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Now with another World Cup less than 12 months away, it is Fiji’s time to shine.
Heading into the competition, the omens are good. Last year they played three Tests and won them all. They beat Lebanon 58-14, flogged Samoa 44-18 and edged Papua New Guinea 22-20.
The Bati have a great roster of talent to choose from. In Maika Sivo they have one of the most devastating wingers in rugby league. In Koroisau they have one of the best hookers in the NRL. With skipper Kevin Naiqama they have experience and class, with the centre winning back-to-back grand finals in Super League with St Helens.
The forward pack is big and powerful with Kane Evans, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Tariq and Korbin Sims, not to mention the Panthers’ beast Kikau. You thrown in the Saifiti brothers, Newcastle props Jacob and Daniel, Melbourne’s monster Tui Kamikamica and Eels centre Waqa Blake, and coach Brandon Costin has real options.
Korbin Sims, born and raised in NSW but with a Fijian mother, debuted for the Bati seven years ago. The forward believes Fiji has been building nicely for several years.
“Fiji’s always been on the rise,” Sims told Everything Rugby League.
“We’ve been very competitive for a number of years now, it’s just we haven’t been able to play that many games as we’d like to. We’re still trying to climb back up the world rankings and be a force to be reckoned with, with the talent we have coming through.
“All the Pacific nations are growing really well and seeing the NRL talent that actually want to represent their country rather than go for a quick payday. It’s always good to represent Fiji, I’m always honoured to do it and if I get another chance next year I’d love to do that.”
The Mate Ma’a have stunned the rugby league world over the past few years. In 2021 they might have some competition for that title from neighbours Fiji.