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Plans to include Pacific Island teams in Super Rugby could wake 'sleeping giant'

World Rugby has pledged its support to the Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika teams.

Fiji celebrate a try in the Autumn Nations Cup last year.
Fiji celebrate a try in the Autumn Nations Cup last year.
Image: Craig Watson/INPHO

WORLD RUGBY HAS received widespread support for backing plans to include two Pacific Island teams - the Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika – in the southern hemisphere’s Super Rugby competition from 2022, with claims it could change the face of the international game.

Fiji winger Nemani Nadolo said the concept could transform rugby in the Pacific, where there is immense playing talent but scarce financial resources to prevent top stars moving overseas.

“This will be massive exposure playing against some of the world’s best on a constant basis… a sleeping giant will be awoken!!” Nadolo tweeted.

Pacific Rugby Players Welfare estimates about 20% of all professional rugby players come from islander backgrounds.

But major hurdles remain before World Rugby’s push to add the Pacific islands to the southern hemisphere tournament from next year become reality.

The island nations of Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga all boast a rich rugby heritage and a wealth of playing talent, but have battled to overcome financial hardships and geographic isolation.

Players are often lured to foreign clubs and in order to receive lucrative contracts are quietly discouraged from playing for their national teams. 

The islanders also lack exposure to top opposition outside of World Cup years and head offshore to develop their playing skills, often switching allegiances to an adopted homeland once they meet residency requirements.

World Rugby said including Pacific teams in Super Rugby would allow top talent to play professionally while remaining in the Pacific region.

“I’m lost for words… this will go beyond improving Pacific island rugby — it will change lives,” said Ben Ryan, the Englishman who coached Fiji’s sevens team to Olympic gold at the Rio 2016 Games.

cj-stander-celebrates-after-scoring-their-sixth-try-with-peter-omahony-and-joey-carbery Ireland beat Samoa at the last World Cup. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama called it “fantastic news”.

“Our boys have proved they belong in the Super Rugby circuit. I know I speak for every Fijian when I say it’s time we get this effort over the try line!” he tweeted.

The fate of the two Pacific teams  will ultimately be decided by New Zealand Rugby, which has emerged as Super Rugby’s de facto powerbroker in the coronavirus era.

The New Zealanders have made clear in the past that any Pacific teams in Super Rugby must be commercially viable and well-governed.

Crucially, these are areas in which World Rugby has offered to help the Pacific bidders.

The governing body will provide a £1.2m annual funding package for an initial three-year period to help the two franchises to cover costs, as well as supplying administrative and high-performance expertise.

But the World Rugby money alone will not be enough to get the bids over the line financially.

The Fiji Rugby Union last month estimated it needed at least NZ$10 million (€6 million) to be viable.

It said costs included paying for a 37-man playing squad, plus another 28 in coaching and administration, as well as a contingency fund “if we have a bad year or two”.

That will require private backers with deep pockets, which are scarce in Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, where the combined population is only about 1.5 million.

tonga-fans Tonga fans at the 2019 World Cup. Source: Photosport/John Cowpland/INPHO

NZR has shown in the past that it will not allow changes that weigh on its bottom line, scuppering plans to include a Pacific team in this year’s Super Rugby because the numbers did not stack up.

The competition’s previous governing body, SANZAAR, did the same in 2018 after weighing up the costs.

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NZR head of professional rugby Chris Lendrum said he was confident all criteria could be met this time around.

“There’s still work to be done, finances can’t be pulled together overnight, legal agreements can’t be agreed overnight and there’s obviously still the issue of contracting players and coaches, but we remain really positive,” he said. 

Lendrum said NZR was in discussions with Rugby Australia and hoped to confirm plans for the 2022 season “in a few weeks”.

The Pacific bids, should they succeed, offer a glimpse of how Super Rugby could look in a post-pandemic world.

South Africa has already aligned its four Super Rugby teams to Europe’s PRO14, and there is no room for Japan’s Sunwolves or the Jaguares of Argentina.

If borders reopen, there will be five Australian teams — including the Western Force — and five from New Zealand, along with the two new Pacific franchises.

The Fijian Drua would be Suva-based and Moana Pasifika would be based in New Zealand, probably Auckland, focusing on attracting players from Samoa and Tonga.

© – AFP, 2021

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