Wellington - Rugby
aims to open up new frontiers this year when Japan host the first Rugby World
Cup held in Asia, but the talent-rich Pacific island nations feel they
are still being neglected by the game's powerbrokers.
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.
Lobby group Pacific Rugby Players Welfare estimates about 20 percent
of all professional players come from islander backgrounds, highlighting
the region's contribution to the international game.
While the figure is open to interpretation, there is no doubt Pacific
islanders have long bolstered the Test squads of New Zealand and
Australia, and more recently England and France.
Fiji coach John McKee said there was an "X-factor" about Pacific rugby which could electrify the game.
"They're very gifted athletes and have that warrior spirit, which
goes back in their history. It's in their DNA and carries on into their
rugby," he said.
But for all their on-field attributes, the Pacific nations face
serious off-field issues that prevent them from consistently challenging
the game's global superpowers.
Some are beyond their control, including geographic isolation, lack
of financial resources and the actions of player agents luring top
Other problems such as poor governance and political interference in
the game can be controlled and there are signs things are slowly
The islands, with a collective
population of less than 1.5 million, lack financial clout and most
promising players soon sign for foreign clubs, making it hard to forge a
cohesive national team.
"Our top players are spread all around the world, particularly in Europe," McKee said.
"So keeping an eye on their form, current fitness and injury status is a major task for us.
"It puts us at a disadvantage against our competitors, particularly tier one nations, who get a lot more time together."
For years, some unscrupulous player agents exacerbated the problem,
signing up budding teenage stars to one-sided European club contracts in
a situation former Fiji sevens coach Ben Ryan likened to "the Wild
McKee said tighter eligibility rules in Europe meant the problem had
eased but young players still needed support when leaving their family
networks to travel to a foreign culture where they often did not speak
the local language.
"For some people, taking them over there was a numbers game - if
they can get 10 players in France and one becomes a superstar that's
great for the agent," he said.
"But who looks after the other nine who don't get contracts? They
slip down the levels and end up playing federale (amateur) rugby. It's
difficult to make a living."
Further complicating matters, the governing rugby unions in Fiji,
Tonga and Samoa have all faced questions in recent years about how they
run the game.
Concerns have ranged from financial irregularities to incompetence and political interference.
"A lot of (problems) have come from home, from the Fijian Rugby
Union," said Englishman Ryan, who coached Fiji's sevens team to Olympic
gold at the Rio 2016 Games.
"There's serious things they need to get better at around governance and things like that."
Again, there has been improvement. Fiji and Samoa were welcomed onto
an expanded World Rugby Council late last year after meeting strict
governance criteria laid down by the game's ruling body.
Fiji showed their potential
with a historic Test win over France last November and McKee was
confident they could spring more surprises in Japan.
But World Rugby's recently discarded plan for a cross-hemisphere
Nations Championship highlights how the game's top brass often treat the
Pacific islands as an afterthought.
Initial indications were that the islands would be excluded from the
competition's top division entirely, although World Rugby said after
coming under intense pressure that Fiji would have a spot.
McKee said even then Fiji would be at a disadvantage because its
players, mostly Europe-based, would be regularly pitted against the
world's best teams without having enough time together to prepare
"What we need is a professional team in a professional competition
which allows us to keep our players," he said, citing the way the Buenos
Aires-based Jaguares Super Rugby team had lifted the Argentine national
A proposal for a Pacific islands Super Rugby team was scrapped late
last year after organisers decided it was not commercially viable.
But McKee said if World Rugby was intent on global expansion and
pursuing lucrative broadcast rights, then it needed to use some of the
money to help the Pacific islands.
"There's certainly no easy solutions but a solution needs to be found," he said.