"A dream come true" - Fiji celebrates Super Rugby milestone

Fiji Rugby has hailed the "historic" announcement the Fijian Drua have been awarded a conditional licence to join an expanded Super Rugby competition from next year.

New Zealand Rugby made the announcement at a press conference in Auckland yesterday afternoon, which was watched live by a jubilant group of FRU staff at Rugby House in Suva.

FRU Chairman, Conway Beg labelled it one of the most exciting developments in the history of Fiji Rugby.

"To be able to field a team in Super Rugby is a dream come true for our Union, our country, and our players," he said.

"It will be a transformational moment in our history, allowing us to bring many of our best players' home, and to retain our best talent in Fiji, so that those players can play elite professional rugby in their homeland".

Fiji Rugby Chief Executive John O'Connor said a Super Rugby franchise on home soil will change the landscape of rugby in Fiji forever.

"Every kid now who wakes up tomorrow has a new dream: to be part of the Fijian Drua and to play professional rugby at home and not leave their families and go to a different environment.

"It's not only a dream for our players, it's a dream for the match officials, coaches and so-forth - it's a total pathway for us which has been missing for long."

The announcement is already having an effect, with O'Connor confirming some of Fiji's top sevens players have pulled the plug on plans to sign for overseas clubs.

"They've indicated now that they would like to play for sevens and then switch over (to the Fijian Drua), so it's already starting. Players we would have lost after the Olympics now have the opportunity to stay back and switch to fifteens."

A number of Flying Fijians internationals playing abroad have already indicated they would move home to represent a local Super Rugby franchise, with the FRU saying they are required to offer salaries that are competitive with what is offered to players in New Zealand and Australian teams.

The FRU has also been contacted by a number of Fijian players who have represented other countries but want to come back and represent the Fijian Drua.

John O'Connor said the announcement was timely, with Fiji's domestic provincial competition kicking off last weekend.

"We've already identified talents that we will sign locally and most of them are already Flying Fijians and playing domestically, locally. Now we will engage other players. Our early discussions they were all around having about 16 overseas based players and 16 local based players."

There is still some work to do before the licenses for the Fijians Drua and Moana Pasifika are confirmed.

The Fiji Rugby Union previously stated it needed to raise US$10 million to show New Zealand Rugby the Drua could be financially sustainable, although Sir Michael Jones told RNZ yesterday the required figure was closer to five or six million dollars.

The FRU said it was in advanced discussions with a group of private investors and expect to finalise their funding arrangements in the coming weeks.

"The real work is just beginning," explained Fiji Rugby's General Manager of Commercial, Brian Thorburn.

"And once we finalise our equity partners, we then have a lot to do in the next nine months to make this happen, starting with the appointment of coaches, contracting of players, locking in venues and broadcasters, as well as securing commercial partners."

Why now?

There have been numerous attempts over the last quarter of a century to get a Pacific Island Super Rugby team off the ground.

John O'Connor said what made this process different was a genuine partnership with New Zealand Rugby and a willingness from all sides to work together.

"We are so grateful to New Zealand Rugby in particular, who have championed our inclusion in the Super Rugby competition," he said.

"I think the main difference this time is that New Zealand Rugby, while they had invited us to submit a bid, they've also held our hand and worked with us along the process, and I think that's been of great assistance," he said.

"They've directed us on a path and they've appointed someone specifically to work with us on this journey to use the connections in terms of private investors and so forth."

Hometown support

The Fijian Drua will play a minimum of five Super Rugby matches in Fiji, which are expected to be shared across venues in Suva and in the West.

ANZ Stadium hosted one-off matches featuring the Chiefs, Crusaders and Highlanders from 2016 to 2019 and John O'Connor said it will be important to ensure ticket prices are affordable for local fans.

"We also understand that seven or six home games that we'll have, in the long-term might not be sustainable for a small market and in our bid we've already discussed options of playing one or two home games in a market in Australia, someplace where there's a lot of Fijian diaspora in Australia, and likewise in New Zealand."

There is also a contingency plan to base the Fijian Drua in New Zealand next season if Covid-19 prevents them from being able to travel internationally.

"The opportunity was too great to be determined by the opening of a (travel) bubble. If we are required to move and relocate to New Zealand for the first year or something then that's something that we've assured New Zealand Rugby that we are willing to do."

The operations of the Fijian Drua will be conducted through a separate company, which will be majority owned by private investors, but will still work closely with the FRU in many areas.

John O'Connor said they hope to announce the appointment of a head coach and players over the coming weeks and months, with plans for the new team to begin pre-season training in October.

"We just want to be competitive the first year and that's one of the requirements by New Zealand Rugby that we need to be competitive, and with the planning that's going on and the appointment of the coach and the players. It's good to be in the competition, we will prepare well and anything is possible after that."