Flying Fijians soaring to greater heights

A little over nine weeks ago, Greg Mumm was celebrating an historic sixth title in a row for his Sydney University side in Sydney’s Shute Shield club rugby competition. After assuming the role of head coach from the previously successful incumbent Damien Hill – who left to assist Rod Macqueen at the fledgling Melbourne Rebels – Mumm experienced the sweet taste of victory for the first time as head honcho, as the all conquering Students laid waste to perennial rivals Randwick in a lopsided final.

While most coaches of the eleven other Shute Shield competitors have spent their time in the off-season with a brief respite from the game before ploughing headlong into pre-season for 2011, Mumm has been keeping himself busy in the international rugby arena. A part of Fiji’s coaching staff during their successful run in the 2007 World Cup in France, he’s been reprising his role as forwards coach for the past few weeks as a part of their recent three match European tour.

Having lost 34-12 to the French three weeks ago in their first hit-out since defeating Japan in the Pacific Nations Cup in June, they made the rugby world sit up and take notice six days later as they grabbed an after the bell 16-all draw with Wales at the Millennium Stadium. The result, coming hot on the heels of knocking the Welsh out of the World Cup in France three years ago, laid down a significant psychological marker ahead of 2011 in New Zealand, where the two sides have been drawn together in the group stages once more. Mumm was suitably enthused by the achievement.

“What’s great about it is that we did it with a relatively inexperienced team,” he explained. “We made some selection decisions based on training ethic and performance rather than reputation, and it paid off. This was one of the better aspects of the performance, that the younger players stood up, which will increase competition over the next year and only help the team.”

One week later and the ‘Flying Fijians’ went close to what would have been another upset – albeit against a side currently ranked two places behind them on the IRB world rankings – when they went down 24-16 to Italy in Modena. Leading 16-9 at half-time, they were eventually reeled in by the Azzurri’s powerful pack and the boot of Mirco Bergamasco, but had the distinction of being the only side to cross the tryline. Based purely on results, two defeats and a draw does not read as a huge success, but Mumm feels that the overall tour experience has offered up more than enough positives to take away from their adventure.

“Regardless of the results, the tour will be seen as a success for the work that the group has done off the field and the lessons we have learnt moving forward. We were just looking to develop as a team, improve from week to week and learn more about each other as a management team and playing group. We took this approach knowing that if this happened that we would be competitive.”

His official title is ‘technical coach’ but Mumm’s main responsibilities are the set-piece and helping to orchestrate the forward pack’s efforts in the scrum and lineout, historically one of the weaker aspects of Fiji’s game. As he points out, it’s a pivotal area to succeed in, in order for a side traditionally respected for their dangerous and attacking style of football to excel with ball in hand.

“Securing quality possession is always a key for Fiji and for other Pacific Island teams, and recycling it in a way which enables them to attack on the front foot against a disorganised defence allows them to play to their natural strengths. We are aiming to improve on our 2007 World Cup performance, so my role is really to make sure that they have the technical knowledge to compete with the tier one nations, and to do so in a manner which complements their strengths and the culture of the team.”

Aside from his role with the forwards, he has also been helping to coach the backs as Fiji go through an unusually fallow period in terms of crossing the white line. Despite their reputation for attacking verve, Albert VuliVuli’s try against Wales was the side’s first in three matches, and Mumm believes that tours of this kind are a valuable tool in improving the cohesion of a group of players that ply their trade across the four corners of world rugby.

“The team does not spend much time together and I think that the ability to score tries – particularly multiples in one game – has a lot to do with confidence, familiarity with the players around you and the game plan. Once the team gets these things happening, I think you will see a lot more five-pointers.”

The success of Mumm’s work with the set-piece won’t get many more testing opponents than the three they have just faced on consecutive weekends, particularly the Italians, a side renowned for the physicality of its pack and for their love of the scrum. He’s convinced that going toe-to-toe – or in this case – head to head – against some of the historical heavyweights of this facet of the game, will be hugely beneficial for Fiji in the long term:

“In that regard, the tour has been an excellent experience for our players. Arguably, we will have come up against the three best scrums in the world and the players and coaches will get a lot from that. The team needs to spend more time together, start to move in a common direction and our players need to be conditioned in a manner fit for test match rugby.

“With players playing across eight different nations and competitions, physical conditioning varies greatly, and so do game styles. But through monitoring and communication, we will
bridge these gaps before we meet again.”

The vision of a Fijian side that can consistently match the conditioning and longevity of their much greater financially supported opponents, whilst also providing the required solid platform from which to unleash their inimitable array of attacking talent, is a frightening prospect indeed…

First published by Ruggamatrix on December 11th 2011

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