Vern Cotter is keen to lure several Super Rugby prospects and has assembled a quality New Zealand-led coaching team as he prepares to guide Fiji in a potentially daunting eight nations tournament later this year.
Cotter abruptly returned to New Zealand in mid-March after the Covid-19 pandemic hit Europe and he agreed an early exit from French club Montpellier. He has since been largely focused on putting the stepping stones in place to prepare Fiji for a series of demanding tests this year.
While chipping away at his Te Puke farm, Cotter has followed the Super Rugby Aotearoa shop window intently.
The former Bay of Plenty head coach and Crusaders assistant has been impressed by several Fiji-eligible prospects including Blues No 8 Hoskins Sotutu, loose head prop Alex Hodgman, who played under 20s for New Zealand and Fiji, Chiefs No 8 Pita Gus Sowakula, Crusaders prop George Bower and wing Manasa Mataele, who is yet to return from injury.
"There's guys that have shown really good form," Cotter told the Herald . "Alex Hodgman from the Blues has gone really well. Sowakula is also playing well.
"There's some really good players we'd love to be able to access. The guy we'd love to get is Hoskins Sotutu, but I think Ian Foster has probably got his eye on him. If Fozzie doesn't pick him, he is welcome to come and play for Fiji."
Confirmation of Cotter's interest in Sotutu is the latest twist in a tale which, in recent weeks, involved England attempting to swoop after the in-form loose forward revealed his diverse eligibility to the Herald .
Sotutu has since committed his future to the Blues for at least the next two years, however, and All Blacks coach Foster is expected to select the 22-year-old in his first squad this season, provided he recovers from the knee injury that has sidelined him for the past two weeks.
Since accepting the Fijian job in January, Cotter has recruited highly-regarded Crusaders forwards coach Jason Ryan, former Waratahs head coach Daryl Gibson, Glen Jackson, who retired from refereeing last year, and Richie Gray to his coaching team.
Gibson will lead Fiji's backline and attack; Ryan the forward pack, Jackson skills and kicking while Gray, who worked with the Springboks from 2014-16 and Cotter at Scotland and Montpellier, will oversee the contact area.
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"Jacko has come from the dark side – he's going to join our coaching group after being a referee for a number of years. He's got a big job in front of him. He'll also be liaising with referees but mostly he'll be giving our players an understanding of what referees see. I can't hold him back he's so enthusiastic about the whole thing.
"Jason will get some international experience with us and it'll be good for him to see another way of preparing for games.
"Gibbo has had his experience as a head coach with the Waratahs and he is coming back with some good ideas.
"They're all good men, hardworking, know the game well, so I'm excited about the whole thing."
Following the Pacific Nations Cup in October, Fiji are expected to compete alongside Japan against the traditional Six Nations powers from November 17 to December 5, with teams to be split into two pools of four.
The eight-team tournament will this year replace the traditional northern-hosted November tours, with the Sanzaar nations instead hoping to stage the Rugby Championship in New Zealand during this window.
Cotter is less enthused about the prospect of returning to Europe amid the pandemic, and having to quarantine for two weeks upon returning home, than he is the chance to assess where Fiji is at after their disappointing World Cup campaign last year.
"The tournament is still not 100 per cent confirmed in November in Europe. It changes daily which is only natural because it's an uncertain landscape. We'll be delighted to be involved but we're waiting for the boxes to be ticked.
"The concept itself is fascinating and would be really good for Fiji rugby considering there's probably 35 professional rugby players in Europe at the moment you could call on to play for Fiji.
"I just wonder how we got into the pool with England, Wales and Ireland. Japan, Italy and Scotland are all ranked lower in World Rugby rankings than the teams in ours.
"It's the challenge Fiji rugby needs. If you're playing England, Wales, Ireland you can't afford to have an off day you've got to remain consistent. You can't have a game where you say you're a bit tired so it's going to drive a different mental attitude.
"Coming up against England at Twickenham in the first game you've got to be at the top of your game or you're going to be on the end of a fairly large score. The daunting task of it will sharpen people up. What a great way to start because at least you're going to get some definite feedback."