CLARKIE'S CORNER - DRUA WRAP UP

CLARKIE'S CORNER - DRUA WRAP UP

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Match Reports

The Swire Shipping Fijian Drua didn’t get the result they wanted in Lautoka, but they certainly gave us plenty of hope for the future. What a game to end the inaugural Super Rugby Pacific campaign!

The Swire Shipping Fijian Drua didn’t get the result they wanted in Lautoka, but they certainly gave us plenty of hope for the future. What a game to end the inaugural Super Rugby Pacific campaign!

I was hoping the fixture against the Chiefs would match all the hype and excitement that we experienced at the clash with the Highlanders in Suva. It turned out to be much better.

The fact that Churchill Park in Lautoka is a smaller venue didn’t matter. There were 9 tries all up and while the Chiefs led from start to finish, they were given a massive fright in the second half when the Drua almost pulled off an upset victory.

I couldn’t believe the size of the crowd outside the venue five hours before kick-off. It was a sell out just like Suva, so augers well for 2023 when the Drua will play most, if not all, their home games in Fiji. The atmosphere was unbelievable and the 10,000-plus crowd left the everyone in the venue wanting more, which is always a good sign. Those who found vantage spots in trees and roof tops outside the stadium also wanted more.

The Drua lost 35-34. The two bonus points for losing by less than 7 in both Lautoka and Suva helped them to avoid the dreaded wooden spoon, leaving Moana Pasifika to settle for bottom place despite their boilover victory against the Brumbies.

So anyone who had doubts about the Drua and Moana joining the competition should be satisfied with the decision now. Both only won two games each, but the Highlanders scraped into the Top 8 playoffs with just four wins.

The Drua will look back on the season and reflect on near misses against the Force, Reds and Highlanders. Those close losses were costly, but on a positive note they proved that they can be competitive when playing to their ability.

While it was frustrating watching the Drua’s lack of experience and patience at times, overall I felt extremely privileged to be given the honour of commentating their home games from the beginning of their exciting journey.

But now it’s time to look back on the ups and downs. Knowing Head Coach Mick Byrne like I do, I know he’ll be brutally honest in his assessment of the 2022 campaign.

There were many positives, including the wins over the Rebels and Moana Pasifika and the effort against the Reds, Force and Highlanders. Players made

the step up to Super Rugby and Flying Fijians Coach Vern Cotter told me that he was looking forward to welcoming many into the National squad.

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Standouts in the Backs were Ravouvou, Vota and Habosi. All still have a few rough edges to iron out, but the potential is there for all to see. Tela was very steady and Lomani’s experience came in handy. Ratave was the Drua’s top try scorer with six…he can certainly sniff out a try, and his impact off the bench was impressive at times.

Up front Derenalagi was a huge success story. The Olympic 7s Gold Medallist handled the captaincy when Nagusa was suspended, and his work rate was incredible before his season was cut short through injury.

While the line-out was a work in progress all season, the scrum functioned very well and Props Uluilakepa, Hetet and Tawake all look to have a good future. The Drua was blessed to have three hookers with great potential. Dolokoto, Togiatama and Ikanivere made the most of their opportunities. Dolokoto proved his worth by playing Flanker at times.

Coach Byrne might have raised some eyebrows when he recently said the squad is only at about 30 % of where they need to be fitness wise, and I agree with him.

Hopefully with a full pre-season under their belts before next year’s tournament, we’ll see the Drua playing for the full 80 and completing scoring opportunities. So often this year we saw 50-50 passes instead of players’ going to ground and building phases. Tries were butchered too often, and defence suffered because players were struggling with the pace of Super Rugby.

The Drua might have scored some of the top tries this year but there wasn’t enough of them. They scored 30, the least amount of any team, and at the end of the regular season the Blues, Crusaders and Hurricanes were equal on top with 64 tries. The Drua also had the worst points differential, thanks to the blow out scores in Christchurch, Wellington, Canberra and against the Tahs in Sydney.

They conceded 75 tries, just one less than bottom placed Moana Pasifika. So it really was a season of rocks or diamonds. Two wins from 14 games, backing up Mick Byrne’s assessment that fitness will be the big ‘work on’ in the off season.

But for all the ups and downs, I loved seeing the Drua realise their dream to play Super Rugby. There were so many challenges – including being away from

home for months on end, being evacuated from their base at Lennox Head and completing the last 5 weeks of the season living out of suitcases. But they kept smiling, won a legion of new supporters and respect, and put many smiles on fans’ faces throughout the year.

Many good judges, including opposing teams, believe the Drua is here to stay and with better fitness and more experience, they will definitely challenge for a Top 8 spot in 2023.