Another All Blacks hammering likely, but Fiji hope brighter days lie ahead

Set against the backdrop of the horror show that was the All Blacks' 102-0 assault on Tonga last week, Fiji are next to step into the caldron dubbed a celebration of Pacific rugby.

Contrary to the immediate challenges they face against the All Blacks in Dunedin, Fiji rugby is in a positive place with the Drua's expected inclusion into Super Rugby from next year expected to gain sign-off this week or next, paving the way to bridge the long-overdue gap in the absence of local professional pathways.

Yet after playing one Test since the 2019 World Cup and, like Tonga, encountering major hurdles assembling their leading players amid the global pandemic, the first in a two-Test series against the All Blacks this Saturday appears unlikely to showcase the best Fijian rugby has to offer.

The landscape is certainly far from an even playing field.

Fiji rugby's high performance general manger, Simon Raiwalui, is reluctant to complain while his small Island nation continues to be rocked by the COVID-19 outbreak that on Tuesday claimed six lives and recorded a further 636 cases.

From a rugby perspective, Fiji are grateful for any matches against the world's top ranked teams.

Raiwalui does not, however, hide from the challenges Fiji confronted in attempting to bring together their squad from all over the globe and then spend two-weeks quarantine in New Zealand before facing an All Blacks team scrapping for starting places.

"With COVID in the country domestically there's been no rugby for three or four months now so it is a difficult period - as it is for most of the world," Raiwalui said.

"We want to go in with a positive mindset to this match. We're under no illusions about the logistical challenges we've faced. We've still not had a team run together. We get our three final players out of MIQ on Wednesday.

"Both our halfbacks and our 10 are stuck in Australia and won't be able to make the Test. Due to the trans-Tasman bubble being paused we moved them to Queensland because we were advised that was the safest state and then that got closed down and the New Zealand government hasn't opened up so unfortunately they won't be able to make it."

Those players stuck in Australia include Melbourne Rebels halfback Frank Lomani, Reds No. 9 Moses Sorovi and first five-eighth Teti Tela.

Semi Radradra, the former Parramatta Eels star turned Bristol Bears midfielder, is also absent with the Olympic sevens team.

Asked about sourcing halves replacements, Raiwalui's explanation carries a similar theme to Tonga's plight last week: "We've got one from Fiji and another young halfback from club rugby in Wellington.

"It's been interesting, a challenge, just to get the squad here and into MIQ. We've had a lot of assistance from NZ Rugby, World Rugby, we've worked really hard to get them in. But bringing people from Europe, Fiji, Australia, New Zealand with the different challenges COVID presents it's been very, very interesting.

"We don't want that narrative; we want to be positive. The boys are in fine form since we've been together but we're under no illusions about the challenges in front of us and what it's taken to get here.

"We know what a good team the All Blacks are; historically the best team in the world with a huge talent pool.

"We want as many tier one matches as possible but we want the opportunity to prepare the same. The All Blacks have had three weeks; they had Super Rugby Aotearoa; Super Rugby trans-Tasman and the Test last week.

"Where the so-called tier two nations struggle is we normally come together with one week to prepare so that's where we're looking for the even keel. As many Test matches against tier one nations as possible, that's what all emerging nations want."

Fiji are an immensely proud rugby nation. Following their disappointing World Cup campaign in which they managed one win in pool play over Georgia - and a loss to Uruguay - coaching changes were made in the form of recruiting the highly-regarded Vern Cotter as head coach, with Crusaders forwards mentor Jason Ryan, Daryl Gibson, Glen Jackson and Richard Gray coming on board too.

That coaching team has only had one Test together, though, after a COVID outbreak hit the team during last year's November tour which restricted Fiji to a sole victory over Georgia. While two Tests against the All Blacks appear unlikely to paint a rosy picture of Fijian rugby, the reality is the Drua's inclusion could soon alter the landscape.

As it stands the Drua, alongside Moana Pasifika, have been granted provisional licences that, provided financial criteria is met, will be upgraded to allow them both to start contracting for the fast-approaching 2022 Super Rugby season.

"We're working each day getting all the finer details right," Raiwalui said. "It's not long until the start of the competition so if we do get the go ahead, we're going to have to be all guns blazing to get it sorted.

"We've got a number of players who we are interested in but we need a licence to start the actual process. Hopefully in the next week we get that decision and we can go ahead. We need that confirmation to plough ahead.

"It's the piece of the puzzle in our pathway that's missing so we get to the under-20, under-23 age and if you don't get a professional contract that's where it stops. The Drua will give us the opportunity to bring players back; give players the chance to stay on the Island with families and train, play at a high level.

"It will be huge for not only our players but the staff and everyone within our program. It will be a huge step forward for Fiji rugby."

The hope, in time, is this pathway allows Fiji to regularly compete with the tier one nations of the global game.

In the highly challenging circumstances they face this week, don't expect that to be the case against the All Blacks.