Bid to help Pacific rugby's 'sleeping giants' wins praise

Wellington (AFP) –


World Rugby received widespread support Thursday for backing plans to include two Pacific island teams in the southern hemisphere's Super Rugby competition, 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 percent of all professional 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.

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.

- Powerbroker NZ -

The fate of the two Pacific teams -- the Fiji Drua and Moana Pasifika -- 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 3.2 million pounds (US$4.9 million) over three years to help 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 (US$7.0 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 corporate backers with deep pockets, which are scarce in Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, where the combined population is only about 1.5 million.

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.

- 'Work to be done' -

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 said it wants to move 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 Fiji Drua would be Suva-based and Moana Pasifika would be based in New Zealand, probably Auckland, focusing on attracting players from Samoa and Tonga.