Glen Jackson interview: ‘Fiji does not have enough rugby balls – it’s why we can’t kick’

Glen Jackson - Glen Jackson interview: ‘Fiji does not have enough rugby balls – it’s why we can’t kick’
Glen Jackson, the former Saracens fly-half and international referee, is now assistant coach of Fiji - Shutterstock/Phil Mingo

“I’ve got an idea for World Rugby,” says Glen Jackson, the former Saracens fly-half and international referee and now assistant coach of Fiji. “Drop 100,000 rugby balls on the island and let’s see how we go then.”

Jackson is only half-joking. Sometimes the biggest problems have the simplest solutions. Fiji making it through to the quarter-final of the Rugby World Cup has been a story of inspirational underdoggery.

An island nation with a population of just 900,000 has already beaten Australia, come with a dropped pass of beating Wales, and now face an England side they defeated for the first time at Twickenham in August.

And this with barely a fraction of the player pool, financial resources, and basic rugby infrastructure of their ‘tier one’ rivals.

“A lot of people ask why Fijians don’t kick better,” adds Jackson, himself a former distinguished fly-half who won the golden boot award for most points scored in the Premiership in 2006/07 with Saracens.

“Well, we are probably not the best kickers because there are simply not a lot of rugby balls on the island, so everyone plays rugby with a coconut, a drink bottle or whatever is handy. That is why their skills are amazing. But think what we could do with more resources.”

The list goes on. Fiji’s hotel in Marseille is just off the busy old port, which has been mobbed by England and Wales supporters this weekend. It is said that nine teams during the tournament had already turned it down (England are based in the leafy university town of Aix-en-Provence 20 miles to the north) before Fiji said yes to it being their quarter-final base.

On Monday, the day following their defeat by Portugal in their final pool match, a mix up in their travel arrangements saw them arrive in Marseille at 9pm. Yet when the players entered the hotel from a training session on Tuesday afternoon, their mood was joyful, not despairing, with an impromptu piano session setting the tone.

Jackson, who played for Waikato Chiefs before spending six seasons at Saracens between 2004-2010, has been working with Fiji since 2020, when he was hired by former head coach Vern Cotter, but he remains in awe of the players’ resilient spirit.

“Nothing phases these players,” he adds. “For them it is all about the connection back to Fiji and these boys understand that.

‘The country will shut down for the game against England’

New Zealand is a rugby country, but you go to Fiji and that is off the Richter scale. It is a country of 900,000 people and every single one follows rugby. They’re amazing human beings – gracious, friendly, everything’s a joke to them and they are talented, talented rugby players.

“It’s a real honour and privilege to be part of the squad to see how well they’re doing so far is a testament to their hard work and that of (head coach) Simon (Raiwalui) and Vern Cotter before him.

“One of the greatest stories is hearing about guys loading a horse with TV, and walking three kilometres up to the top of a hill to get internet so they could watch a game.

“And hearing back from the people in Fiji now, the support we’re getting is phenomenal. The country will shut down for the game against England. I thought New Zealand was a rugby nation but it’s nothing compared to Fiji.”

Jackson, who played alongside England head coach Steve Borthwick at Saracens, describing him was one of the best captains he ever played with, points to their reaction to their defeat by Portugal as an example of that mindset.

“Fijians move on from setbacks more than anyone,” he added. “Often there is a horrendous storm and they will lose everything. But they are a very religious people and they have a very good understanding that things happen for a reason and they move on. The boys were devastated to lose the game, but minutes later we were looking forward to playing in the quarter-final. It was a good experience to learn that we can’t just expect to turn up and play.”

‘Understanding how to be a professional has been so important’

Jackson, who refereed 32 Test matches, including at the 2015 World Cup, before moving into coaching following his retirement in 2019, says Fiji’s success has not come by chance. The establishment of the Fiji Drua Super Rugby side and an academy, has for the first time, established a structured supply line to the national side.

“In the first year with the Drua, I think only half the squad had lifted a weight before,” he added. “Now we have a facility where they can train all year around. Understanding how to be a professional has been so important. For the first time we have kids coming out of school and they will be able to stay in Fiji and not go to Australia, New Zealand or France. The academy system has 10 or 12 kids in it now and it keeps on growing.”

The investment in a strong management team is also reaping rewards. Jackson says head coach Raiwalui has been brilliant at retaining the side’s traditional strengths of attacking rugby but bringing more organisation and discipline.

Simon Raiwalui - Glen Jackson interview: ‘Fiji does not have enough rugby balls – it’s why we can’t kick’
Simon Raiwalui is an ex-Saracens forward who was parachuted in as his country’s head coach this year - Getty Images/Stu Forster

“The first Test match I refereed was England against Fiji at Twickenham in 2012,” he adds. “I don’t think I have ever awarded so many penalties against a team so when I joined the coaching team here, it was easy for me to tell them that they needed to learn where the offside line was!”

Conditioning has also been critical, with former RFU fitness coach Dave Silvester, a veteran of seven World Cups, transforming their preparations.

“The squad has never been as fit,” Jackson adds. “We had to get fit to play a Fijian style of rugby for 80 minutes, not just for 40. We didn’t want to lose our identity of how we play, which is entertaining rugby, and also become more disciplined. The boys understand that now – fewer penalties means less work, and it is important that we carry that on against England.

“A happy Fijian is a dangerous Fijian – and luckily our boys are pretty happy right now!”

England, you have been warned.