AFTER a frustrating first season at Edinburgh, which started late due to visa complications and never fully got going because of injury, Viliame Mata – or ‘Big Bill’ as he has come to be affectionately known by the club’s fans – has now fully established himself as a cult hero with the capital outfit.
Even Richard Cockerill, Edinburgh’s notoriously hard to please head coach, joked that he was beginning to prefer the 27-year-old Fijian to his own wife after the player’s inspirational performance against Toulon in the Champions Cup last month.
But the giant number eight now has his sights set on upsetting his new friends in EH12 – at least for one weekend – by doing what he does best when he runs out at Murrayfield in Fijian colours for Saturday’s clash against Scotland.
“It is a home ground to me, I’ve played a lot of my rugby there, and I’ve told the boys that it’s a great place to play rugby – a great stadium and a great pitch,” he says.“It’s not that full when we play – but I was there to watch Scotland play England and it was packed.It will be an amazing experience to play in that kind of atmosphere, to play Scotland at home.”
So, Mata and his team-mates have an idea of what to expect this weekend, but the big question is what should Scotland expect from Fiji?
Famously flamboyant, the Pacific Islanders are hamstrung by a lack of time together as a squad, but are working hard under Kiwi head coach John McKee to develop a more rounded tactical approach to the game.
And Scotland learned to their cost the last time the two sides met, in Suva back in June 2017, that Fiji can play a pretty effective tight game when the situation requires, with the hosts running out deserving 27-22 winners that day based on a powerful forward-orientated approach ideally suited to the treacherously wet weather conditions .
However, that more conservative mind-set will never fully usurp the team’s fundamentally adventurous instincts.
“At the moment, we’re just reviewing our game because we haven’t played together since last June,” says Mata.“Because of that, we’re keeping everything short and simple and looking to make a good start to our November Tests.
“We’re all professional rugby players. So, when we come into camp for a week, it’s just a mental thing. People switch on and play the game the way that we love – it’s easy once you get here.
“Maybe you could say that, because of our style, it isn’t as hard for us to come together and get ready for a Test.”
He continues: “It will be a little strange for me, because there are a lot of Edinburgh boys – and plenty of Glasgow players – in the Scotland team. But I’m looking forward to the challenge. And I know it is a big challenge, especially playing against the Edinburgh boys.
“The hardest tacklers at Edinburgh? Oh, for me that would be Hamish Watson and Stuart McInally, easy.But I won’t be avoiding them. You have to play against them if they’re there.
Fiji will go on to play Uruguay in Gloucester next Saturday before bringing the curtain down on their Autumn schedule against France in Paris the week after that.
“We’re trying to build a team for the World Cup, [by] getting everything we can from this November, because we don’t play together again until June,” says Mata.
“It’s just about being mentally right. We’re all professional rugby players, we just need a week together to sort everything out. We had a camp in Toulouse last week, which was very helpful and useful for us.’
“It would be an achievement to get into the top eight, we’re tenth right now, but we have to focus on Scotland first.”
“It was important for Fiji to beat Scotland back home,” added Mata, who missed that game through injury. “But to come here and win would be different – it would keep our November tour alive. In the past, we’ve maybe started our tours a bit slow, but this year we’ve worked really hard on making a quicker start – and that means being ready for Scotland.”