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WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Fiji’s rugby players likely will have their minds on an unfolding COVID-19 crisis in their homeland when they play the New Zealand All Blacks in Dunedin on Saturday in the first of two test matches.
The match and series are historic for Fiji; their first test in New Zealand in 10 years and their first-ever back-to-back tests against the All Blacks.
But the match is taking place against a grim background in Fiji, a Pacific nation of around 900,000 people which has been battling a coronavirus outbreak since April. During that time it has seen more than 7,800 cases, more than 700 new cases in each of the last two days and 48 deaths.
The spread of the virus has been hastened by low vaccination numbers, so the Fiji players will wear a special jersey in Saturday’s test which will carry a message encouraging their compatriots to get vaccinated.
“We are playing this historic test against the All Blacks as our nation battles a devastating second wave of COVID-19,” Fiji Rugby chief executive John O’Connor said. “Both Fiji Rugby and our biggest partner Fiji Airways recognize that our responsibility towards the well-being of the Fijian people extends beyond the pitch."
O'Connor said Fiji Rugby was “humbled and delighted” that the national airline, a major sponsor, has given up its "prime front of jersey space in this test series for the greater good, replacing their own brand with the message ‘Vaccinate Fiji’."
Fiji’s New Zealand-born head coach Vern Cotter said his players are hugely admired and their participation in the drive to have most Fijians vaccinated likely will be influential.
“Our Fijian rugby players are famed at home and the world over,” Cotter said. “They inspire Fijians of all ages and are honored to carry forward a message that will help our people and our country emerge from the COVID crisis."
Cotter said normally Fiji fans would be flying in to support their team against the All Blacks but now can't because of travel restrictions.
“We hope Fijians choose to fully vaccinate so they can get back to supporting their favorite teams in person in any country.,” he said.
The Fijian players themselves have had to face the problems of travel in the COVID era as they have come together from Britain, France, Japan and Australia. The Fiji rugby sevens squads, including the Olympic champion men’s team, had to quarantine in Australia before heading to Japan for the Tokyo Games. Cotter's test rugby squad spent two weeks in quarantine in Christchurch, New Zealand ahead of Saturday’s match.
“Our people back home in Fiji are struggling with the current pandemic and we’re here away from our families and (making) the sacrifice we’ve had to do to put our hands up and come to represent Fiji,” England-based winger Nemani Nadolo said. Some players are still yet to join the squad because of issues with travel, quarantine and isolation.
“We are a team for the people," Nadolo said, "and no matter where you come from or how big you are or where you played, when you come to this team we’re all in the same (situation).”
The All Blacks beat an under-strength Tonga lineup 102-0 in their first test of the season last weekend. Fiji is expected to pose a much sterner challenge, despite the difficulties it has faced in its preparation.
Nadolo said the team had “a winning mentality.”
“We’re under no illusion,” he said. “It’s going to test us both mentality and physically.
"Our coaching staff are doing their best to prepare us and we ourselves are doing as much as we can to be ready for this game.”
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Steve Mcmorran, The Associated Press