The Fijiana XVs rugby squad are using their first Australian tour as a stepping stone towards making a maiden World Cup appearance in 2021.
After narrowly missing out on a highly-anticipated debut at last year’s tournament in Ireland, captain Lailanie Burnes feels the current two-leg trip featuring Newcastle will help put the fresh-look team on the right path.
“That’s our ultimate goal,” Burnes told the Newcastle Herald after training at No.2 Sportsground on Thursday morning.
“The vision is to make it to the rugby World Cup the next time it comes around in three years.”
Fijiana beat Papua New Guinea 37-10 in the Oceania Championship decider at home in Suva in November, 2016, but the following month were overcome 55-0 by Japan and 45-7 by hosts Hong Kong at the second and final stage of World Cup qualifiers.
Loose-head prop Burnes said they have welcomed 10 new players into this rejuvenated 24-member travelling group, who meet a Hunter representative side at No.2 Sportsground on Saturday (4:45pm) after accounting for the ACT Brumbies 33-7 in Canberra earlier this week.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to come across to Australia,” Burnes, a Nandi province representative and sales manager for South Seas Cruises, said.
“We know the level of rugby here is quite strong, so we’re learning as much as we can and also trying out some of the things we’ve learnt back in Fiji.
“We want to develop the team and bring us to another level.”
The Fijiana tour came about after Newcastle-based Hawthorne Club-chairman Mark Queenan was contacted by Oceania Rugby officials.
“We hope this is part of a catalyst for women’s rugby in the zone,” Queenan said.
Former Wanderers women’s player Paulina Tuiqali has also been involved with the Fijiana squad, which includes 19-year-old halfback Raijeli Tale, at ground level.
“All the girls are very excited to be here,” she said.
Burnes said women’s rugby was growing from “strength to strength” in Fiji, including the sevens team playing World Series quarter-finals at the weekend’s round in Paris, helping the sport retain its high status at home.
“Rugby is a real passion for the Fiji people,” Burnes said.
“You never go past a rugby field in the afternoon without seeing someone with a ball having a play.
“And of course after the boys’ big win [gold medal] at the Olympics [Rio 2016], everyone was on cloud nine celebrating across the whole country.”
Meanwhile, a record six nations this week confirmed interest in hosting the women’s rugby World Cup in 2021. Bids from Australia, New Zealand, England, Wales, France and Portugal are due on August 10.