World Cup Preview: Fiji & Namibia

Group D Opposition: South Africa, Wales, Samoa

Pedigree: With a very respectable history at this tournament, Fiji are twice quarter-finalists, most recently in 2007. Despite having no right to be on the same field as the Springboks (copyright Jacque Fourie), they were far from disgraced in a 37-20 defeat, having earlier disposed of Wales in the pool stages.

This will be Namibia’s 4th successive finals, although they have no wins to report – their best result being the 17-32 humiliation wreaked on Eddie’s Ireland in Bordeaux. To put that in context, their next best results are 30-point defeats to Romania and Georgia, and their worst was 0-142 against the Wallabies in 2003.

Players to watch: Fijian flyer Napolioni Nalaga intimidated much of Europe as part of an all-conquering (well, all except Munster and Leinster) Clermont side, but he failed to return from holiday, then said he was suffering from depression, and ended up being let go. His whereabouts were a mystery until he appeared (and scored two tries) at the PNC – lets hope he is back in full fitness (mental and physical) and his best. Anyone who has watched Racing Metro this season has probably seen Albert VuliVuli get a yellow card for a high tackle – the man is a powerful centre and should love the Bokkebosh game.
If you were told of a Jacques Burger who plays for Saracens, you might guess his nationality as Seth Efrican. But you’d be wrong – he’s Namibian, like Percy Montgomery. Although he’s unlikely to emulate Percy’s 2007 feats. Namibia also have a hooker who has piqued our interest – a man called Egbertus O’Callaghan. We wonder does he give away dumb penalties when Namibia have the opposition under control? If so, we have a funny feeling we know one of his distant cousins…

Good tournament: For Fiji, another quarter-final will be the expectation, and they have respectable records against all of the bigger guns in this pool. Namibia will hope to get away with their dignity intact.

Bad tournament: For Fiji, losing to both Wales and Samoa is the worst-case scenario. Namibia will fear having a century put on them by the notoriously sympathetic-to-the-underdog South Africa – and having the ability to speak the same language as Bakkies Botha is not necessarily a good thing.

Prospects: In one sense, it’s harsh to put these teams together as, unlike some of our other minnows previews, one team is streets ahead of the other. But we had to put Namibia somewhere. They are comprised mostly of home-based players and semi-pros playing in their powerful neighbour next door, with a few lads based in France, England and Romania (!) thrown in. They recently beat Portugal and came within a score of depleted Romania and Georgia sides in the Nations Cup, which is far from disgraceful, although their previous tour in November 2010 saw them emerge winless from Iberia.

At 20th in the world, they are the lowest ranked team in the competition, despite it being their best ever position. As always, one hopes they can do their country proud and expand rugby’s appeal, but this could be a high-water mark, given the cultural background of the sport in their country, and the up-coming teams from Iberia and South America who could potentially overtake them in the near future.

Fiji surpassed all expectations in 2007 with a first quarter-final appearance in 20 years, welting Wales after struggling past Japan and Canada; then giving the Springboks a decent run for their money. Since then, they have exported a few big and threatening backs to France, and had a few pretty successful tours of the Northern hemisphere. In 2009 in the lashing rain at the RDS, they saw Jonny Sexton and Mushy make promising debuts for Ireland, and were in contention until giving away a silly try after half-time, then fell apart. This winter, they should have won in the Millennium, but failed to put away a woeful Welsh side when the opportunity presented itself.

They mostly beat Samoa in their PNC games, but Samoa have more players from Europe to bring in. It’s a huge pity that perhaps their best eligible player, Isa Nacewa, has refused a call-up. It’s hard to blame him, given the circumstances of his single cap, but he would be exactly the kind of intelligent pivot this team could do with if they’re to win three games in this group.

Verdict: Like Samoa, Fiji are involved in a three-team mini-league with Wales. The three teams are fairly closely matched, and it’s feasible each could win one from two. But we anticipate Wales to have too much class and squeeze out Fiji and Samoa in the final reckoning, possibly due to bonus points. Namibia will get panned by all-comers – they have been thrown in with three teams who enjoy throwing the ball around and a fourth who enjoy kicking the ball into orbit and beating up on minnows – we anticipate an average losing margin of around 50 points.