As Australia braced for their opening RWC fixture against Fiji in Japan, a man with intimate knowledge of many key Wallabies was lurking in the shadows plotting their downfall.
Melbourne Rebels assistant analyst John Batina had been seconded to the Fijian national team with the task of guiding the Flying Fijians to an unlikely appearance at the Quarter Final stages of the World Cup.
In a twist of fate, Fiji’s first opponent was the Wallabies and a team stacked full of Batina’s colleagues from the Melbourne Rebels.
Adding further spice to the mix, Batina was tasked with attempting to decipher a Wallaby attack masterminded by his very own Rebels coaching colleague – Shaun Berne.
“For us, we were able to identify some trends in their set piece and their defensive pattern which I felt we did well in exploiting,” claims Batina.
“In that first half, particularly with lineouts, we had seen how they defended against the All Blacks and some other teams they had played in the lead up.
“We could see some things they were doing that we could capitalise on and some of the linebreaks that happened were a result of that analysis from the coaches.”
The Fijians entered the sheds at halftime leading their more fancied opponents, but ultimately their fitness (the Fijians made 91 more tackles than Australia) would hurt them as the Wallabies chased down the deficit in the second half.
Disappointed in defeat, Batina quickly put the result in focus.
“It is now one of the biggest highlights of my career; being able to play against Australia, where I had been born and raised and against players I work with every day. All whilst being on duty for my beloved Fiji at the pinnacle of World Rugby.
“But also to sing the national anthem of Fiji before the game, with my mum and sister in the crowd, was very emotional for me. It was certainly a proud day for all of my family around the world.”
Born in Melbourne to an Australian mother (Leanda) and Fijian father (Anare), Batina carved out a name for himself as a player with the Northern Panthers before interning in 2015 with the Rebels as an assistant analysis.
Six seasons of Super Rugby experience coupled with his Fijian heritage made Batina the obvious candidate to oversee the Fijians analysis requirements for the World Cup – despite the unprecedented challenges the tournament schedule offered.
“In Super Rugby you always have a week preparation for the game.
“This was the first time for me where you went from having such an intense week preparing for the Wallabies and then having to play another Test in only four days.
“Having lost (to the Wallabies) after playing so well was emotional and in the midst of that we had to pack everything up, move to another city and play another game in just four short days,” reflected Batina.
The logistics of a four-day turnaround ultimately proved too much for Fiji. Rugby minnows Uruguay sprung one of the greatest ever upsets to defeat Fiji 30-27 at the Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium in the second round of the pool stages.
Despite the heartbreak of the loss, Batina was able to see some positives when the dust had finally settled.
“I was kind of happy for Uruguay, after a few days, that they had done that.
“It was only a matter of months ago that Fiji had defeated France and experienced that same sort of feeling that Uruguay would have now been feeling. For tier two rugby, those wins are huge.
“The result also seemed to support a telling narrative at this year’s World Cup. Notably, that there was a shrinking score margin between traditional Tier One nations and Tier Two teams.”
No doubt that statistic is in part due to the escalation of information sharing that has occurred between the traditional powerhouses and the emerging nations. Just like the appointment of Batina to Fiji, more and more developing nations are seeing an influx of coaches and players who have been exposed to the professional Super Rugby and Premiership competitions.
With mountains of data at his disposal, Batina was well placed to stay abreast of emerging trends that were developing as the tournament wore on.
“Many of the things you’d expect from the stats didn’t actually correlate with winning,” stated Batina.
“One of the interesting stats (to emerge) was that some of the teams that won the game actually didn’t have the majority of possession.
“What was more important was speed of ball. Everyone wants to play quick.
“We also saw more contestable kicks this tournament than ever before. Whereas teams may have traditionally kicked long when escaping their half of the field, we saw a lot more teams put up higher but shorter kicks that gave their chasers a chance to compete for possession back.
“It wasn’t uncommon to see teams chance their arm on a long arm advantage and try to manufacture tries rather than take a potential three points that a field goal might afford. That’s why you saw lots of cross field kicks and long cut passes being chanced when teams had the advantage, as opposed to the flyhalf sitting in the pocket and trying for a drop goal,” noted Batina.
Tellingly, Batina was reluctant to suggest these trends would be implemented by Super Rugby coaches.
“I think it’s a bit chalk and cheese (comparing Test Rugby to Super Rugby),” observed Batina.
“You can’t try to play like somebody else. Each team has to play to their strength; you have to build your own character.
“We (the Rebels) don’t have the same forward pack as South Africa. As much as you might want to replicate them, I think there are cultural limitations that might stop you from being able to do what they did on the field.”
Unlike the glamorous jet-setting lifestyle it might appear to be, being on the road for four months preparing for the World Cup had understandably left Batina exhausted.
“It’s the longest I’ve been away from home,” admitted Batina.
“You live out of a suitcase; out of hotel rooms, around a rugby team full of just men for four months.”
Far from returning this week to Rebels HQ fatigued, Batina’s recent promotion to Performance Analyst Manager for the Rebels has ensured the popular figure returns rejuvenated and as excited ever.
“I felt so happy to be going to the World Cup knowing I was representing my friends, my family and also the Melbourne Rebels.
“To see the trust they (The Rebels) have in me to oversee this department, is so humbling.
“I was thankful for Eoin Toolan (former Head Analyst) because I started under him and didn’t have any experience at all. Everything I’ve learnt has been through the Rebels and through Eoin’s help.
“After our disappointment at the World Cup, I felt excited knowing I was coming back to run this department. It feels like a fresh start, and I can’t wait to get into the new Super Rugby season,” said Batina.