Saturday, 4 August 2018

The sudden stop to the stream of young Fijians moving to France

If you think back to the middle part of this decade there were very large numbers of young Fijians, mostly either still teenagers or just turned 20, signing for a host of different Espoirs squads in France.

There had been some very young players signed from Fiji in the the previous decade, but they were usually signed mostly on the basis of contacts of already successful Fijians in France.

For example Sireli Bobo reportedly recommended his nephew Ilikena Bolakoro to Biarritz before he joined them aged 19 in 2007, and then also was behind bringing Virimi Vakatawa to his next club Racing 92 aged just 17 in 2009. Also in 2007 Saimoni Vaka moved to Agen at age 19 reportedly due to the link between Rupeni Caucaunibuca and the club.

However the move that arguably kickstarted the phenomenon of young U21 aged Fijians moving to France was Napolioni Nalaga, who signed from Nadroga to Clermont after being spotted at the 2006 U21 World Championship which was held that year in the Auvergne region of France.
Napolioni Nalaga

Nalaga's peak was probably the first period of his career where his impact was incredible. Over his first season and a half after breaking into the first team when Julien Malzieu and Aurélien Rougerie were called up to international duty in 2008, he scored 39 tries in 37 Top 14 matches for Les Jaunards and was awarded the prize for best player in the league in 2009.

It was that surely gave Clermont the idea in 2010 to set up a formal partnership with Nadroga Rugby Union. For the next few years following that a handful of players all aged 19-20 were signed to the Clermont Espoirs squad, with the project succeeding in bringing through several players to the first team such as Kini Murimurivalu, Noa Nakaitaci, Peceli Yato, Uwa Tawalo, Alivereti Raka, and Seta Tuicuvu.

At a similar time Metuisela Talebula signed for Bordeaux-Bègles aged 21 in 2012 of the back of a sensational start to his Fiji career and also had a lot of early success. Also a year later Toulon discovered a Nalaga type winger of their own in Josua Tuisova who quickly broke into the first team.

Soon after that it seemed every club in France wanted to follow the lead of Clermont and search Fiji for another special young talent to join their Espoirs squads and a stream of players aged between 17-21 started arriving.

The height of this came around 2013 to 2016. Over that period remarkably at least 40 Fijians (by my count) were signed by 21 different professional French teams (that is just from what I could find, it's possible there could be more who signed then simply disappeared without a trace after a season, and likely many others who had trials without getting a contract).

All the major Top 14 players like Clermont, Toulon, Bordeaux-Bègles, Stade Français, Montpellier, La Rochelle, Pau, Lyon signed one or more Fijian to their Espoirs over that period. Even the likes of lowly Pro D2 sides like Albi or Provence were getting in on the act, whilst Brive announced they were following Clermont in setting up their own Academy in Fiji in partnership with Ratu Navula College (a proposal they have since abandoned).

However only three years on from its height, this trend seem to have suddenly come to an almost complete halt.

In the summer of 2015 at least 18 young Fijians joined Espoirs squads in France, 15 of which were to Top 14 squads. Last summer the only arrival that could be found was Freddy Duguivalu who joined Perpignan in Pro D2. This summer there has not been a report of a single Fijian aged under 21 moving to any professional team in France. Up until very recently you could find a Fijian in almost any Espoirs squad, now you can hardly find any.

As of writing not a single U20 eligible (born 1998 or under) Fijian player can be found in a professional tier team in France. That is remarkable if you consider there were at least as many as 20 such Fijian players as recently as 2015. That is a dramatic change in a short space of time, and there are a mixture of possible reasons behind it.

First of all very few of those Fijian recruitment strategies have gone nearly as well for anyone else like they have done for Clermont. Of the at least 26 Fijian espoirs to move to Top 14 clubs in France between 2014 and 2016, already 20 are no longer at the clubs that originally brought them to France, most not going to similar level clubs, but either down to low budget clubs in Pro D2, Fédérale 1, or simply released and gone home. By comparison from the Georgian U20 aged players signed over the same period there are roughly twice as many who are still at their original club even though fewer overall were signed, plus some like Beka Gorgadze who have moved to stronger clubs.

Undoubtedly the anti-Clermont of recruiting Fijian espoirs has proven to be Bordeaux-Bègles. Perhaps buoyed by the success of Metuisela Talebula at the club, between 2014 to 2015 they signed six Fijian espoirs aged between 17-21. Now zero out of those six are still at the club for next season, with only one making the field for a Top 14 match off the bench for 7 minutes.

One possible factor is difficulty some of those young players may have had adapting to French language and culture. It is not easy for anyone to move abroad away from friends and family at such a young age, but even more so for players who have travelled from half way across the world from Fiji.

Despite brilliance on the pitch relationships have often at times been frustrating between French clubs and Fijians, going back to Rupeni Caucau in the past, to Timoci Nagusa (who reportedly failed to appear on time for pre-season yet again recently) today. There have also been a handful of disciplinary incidents involving Fijian players in France. After one in 2017 that involved Waisea Nayacalevu and Josaia Raisuqe, and saw the latter sacked by Stade Français, Pacific Rugby Players Welfare representative Joe Rokocoko referenced issues with depression and homesickness as problems for some young Fijian players in France.
Image result for Nadroga Clermont
The Bouclier de Brennus visits Nadroga
after Clermont's triumph in 2017

Another key factor appears to be financial. It is not cheap to scout half way across the world in Fiji, apparently even Clermont have been considering the cost of running their operation in Fiji and they are the ones who have had by far the most success with it. Since their relationship with Nadroga they had been adding a new Fijian to their Espoirs near every year, but for the last two seasons now they have not added any, with the previous two players they brought in 2016 not lasting beyond a season. However they did recently renew their partnership with Nadroga so that is far from finished and there may still be more in the future.

All in all it seems many clubs are deciding that the investment in Fijian talent of that age does not offer the value they thought it would. What is proving to be a more successful recruitment strategy is instead of rushing to find a 19 year old talent, waiting to allow the player to gain a bit of experience closer to home either for Fiji or in competitions in New Zealand or Australia.

For example Filipo Nakosi, rated as one of the best wingers in the Top 14 with Agen last season and now signed to Toulon, moved to France slightly older at 23 in late 2015 after having played a couple seasons of Mitre 10 Cup rugby with Northland.

Elsewhere Peni Ravai, joined Aurillac at 27 in 2017, and last season moved up to the Top 14 and been and effective ball carrying impact sub for Bordeaux-Bègles. Whilst two of the stars of the Top 14 Levani Botia and Leone Nakarawa also only moved to Europe at 25, both already as fully capped Fijian internationals in both 15s and 7s.

This year the players to have been signed to Top 14 clubs from Fiji have been Eroni Sau to Perpignan and Peceli Nacebe to Bordeaux-Bègles (who has since been loaned to Brive), both who impressed in the NRC playing for the Fijian Drua where they were standout players. Fiji Warriors lock Tevita Ratuva who also played NRC last year for Brisbane City has moved to Bordeaux. Whilst Clermont's Fijian signing for next season is Apisai Naqalevu, who first moved to France with Dax at 26 in 2015. That seems to be what the trend has swung towards. Away from the 18 to 20 year old Espoirs and more to the 22 to 28 year old Fijian players with a bit of experience either in the Mitre 10 Cup, NRC, or with Fiji Warriors selections.

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