John McKee's four-year plan has Fiji primed for a deep Cup run

Fiji will head into the Rugby World Cup better prepared than ever before and intent on advancing to the knockout stage for the first time since 2007.

Coach John McKee has assembled an impressive squad for his second shot at the tournament after the Pacific Islanders earned plenty of respect for the way they competed in a brutal Pool A four years ago.

Drawn alongside hosts England, Wales and Australia in 2015, the Fijians had their moments in each contest and were only beaten by 24, 15 and 10 points respectively before they finished on a high with a 32-point triumph over Uruguay.

But that return did little to satisfy McKee.

"Going back to 2015 we got some accolades about the way we played but at the end of the day we didn't beat any of the Tier 1 teams which to be successful at a World Cup we have to achieve," McKee told ESPN.

"So across the four-year cycle we've worked on building on our 2015 performance and looking for a better performance this time around in terms of our results."

McKee re-signed as coach in 2017, ensuring he would be able to plan Fiji's preparation for the 2019 tournament far more completely than in 2015. Having only been in charge for one year prior to that tournament, it was always going to be tough to bring together a group of players who are scattered around the world for much of the year.

The New Zealander has travelled more extensively this time around, particularly to Europe where many of Fiji's best players ply their trade.

"It's one of our challenges and one we do our best to deal with," McKee said of Fiji's playing group. "But across this four-year cycle, we developed good systems, good processes to keep track of our players.

"We really built the relationships with the clubs, I spend more time Europe than anyone has previously in terms of getting face to face with the players but also talking to their coaches and club management. So they're well across what our plans are and what we expect of our players."

Long renowned have explosive power and speed in the backs, particularly on either wing, the rise of back-rowers Peceli Yato and Viliame Mata alongside the already established Leone Nakarawa certainly set tongues wagging across the 2018/19 European season.

Mata was eventually named the Pro14's Player of the Year while Yato had a superb season with French club Clermont.

"Yato, he was with us in 2015, he was a young player then but he went to Clermont as a young man, about 18 years of age, and came through their academy systems; he's a big, strong, powerful player with plenty of impact and we saw that last November against France.

"Vili [Mata], sort of a different pathway, he was predominantly a sevens player who was part of the Olympic team, went to Edinburgh after the Olympics and was really almost learning the ropes as a XVs player because he had little experience in the game really, but he's very quickly developed into a world-class No. 8."

If Fiji are to achieve their goal of a quarterfinal berth, they will have to beat either of Australia or Wales as well as ensure there are no slip-ups against either Uruguay and Georgia.

An improved set-piece, which was on show in their shock victory over France in Paris last year, will be vital while McKee also acknowledges the danger the Wallabies' maul presents after David Pocock scored two tries from the lineout drive in Australia's 28-13 victory over Fiji at the 2015 World Cup.

"From the time I started here you realise that to play successful international rugby you need to be able to compete in the set-piece against the best teams and we've put a lot of work into that area," McKee told ESPN.

"You can see the big improvement in our scrums whereas we used to incur a lot of penalties and struggled in that area, and now we're on par with anyone we play. We've still got a bit of work to do around our lineout and probably around our maul area, but that's progressing pretty well and I expect it to be top-notch by September 21."

It's all about doing the fundamentals well. If Fiji can do that, then we might just see the attacking brilliance that saw them upset Wales way back in 2007 and earn a quarterfinal place at the same time.

"We know the Fijians have a lot of flare and a lot of attacking ability, so ultimately we want to score tries and score tries in the wide channels that we know," McKee said. "To achieve that, we're going to have to do the fundamentals really well.

"And Test match rugby, the scintillating play can be the icing on the cake but the winning or the losing is around the advantage line, attack and defence, around the tackle and the ruck area, and how you can generate quick ball to create opportunities or how effective you are in the defensive line in stopping the opposition getting go-forward. They're going to be the big areas in the World Cup.

"Our ambition is certainly to get into the playoffs, I think that's been clearly stated. We know we've got some big challenges ahead, it's a difficult pool; Australia and Wales are two very good sides and that's not to discount Georgia either, they're certainly a lot like us, one of the top Tier 2 nations and capable of winning big games as well."