Fresh air has been breathed into the dream of a Pasifika Super Rugby team.
The New Zealand government has commissioned and shared with New Zealand Rugby a feasibility study into the establishment of a Super Rugby team based in the Islands from 2020, with games to be held in Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Auckland and Sydney.
Neither NZR nor the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, who ordered the study, will discuss it.
RNZ‘s Joe Porter asked some invested parties what a team would mean to the Pasifika communities, if it would solve Pacific rugby‘s problems and whether it‘s sustainable?
The Pacific Islanders took on the All Blacks in Auckland in 2004, and they covered themselves in glory that night.
But that glory was fleeting, with the team disbanded in 2008.
And with no Super Rugby team to call their own, former All Black wing and Manu Samoa coach, Sir Bryan Williams, said Pacific rugby has been left “running on the smell of an oily rag”.
“One of the things that‘s been to the real detriment of Pacific Island rugby is the fact they‘re not involved in Super Rugby. As a result they can‘t generate the sort of income all the other Super teams can.
“It‘s sort of hand to mouth for those unions at the moment. If the team comes to pass it will be a significant boost for Pacific Island rugby.”
Sir Bryan believes if the team goes ahead, Pacific rugby will rise.
“We‘ve seen the demise Samoan rugby over the last five or so years, they‘ve gone from seventh in the world to 16th. That‘s not a good sign. [A Pacific Super team] would give the players the right sort of competition week to week and generate the kind of income that will allow them (Tonga, Fiji and Samoa) to compete at the very top level.
“[Pacific unions] get some grants from World Rugby, but not enough to compete at the top level of international rugby.”
Those sentiments are echoed by Dan Leo, founder of the Pacific Rugby Players Welfare, a group set up to help support Pacific Island players in Europe.
“Having a group of players who are used to playing with each other, who are on the doorstep of selectors would be a huge benefit to the individual unions. Hopefully it would be the cream of the crop, the guys that would have gone to France to pursue the big bucks, those are the guys I see a Super Rugby team actually being able to hold in the islands.
“Having access to those players throughout the season would definitely benefit the Pacific Island international teams.”
Leo said the lack of a local team has caused an unprecedented Pacific exodus to Europe, where Pasifika players grapple with culture shock, financial struggles and performance expectations.
“We‘re now working with many players who are now struggling with that pressure and don‘t have those traditional communities to fall back on.
Over [in Europe] you‘ve got no-one, your family, your village, your church, your elders. It can be a pretty lonely place. Anything that helps support players in not having to leave the Pacific will be better in the long run.”
But it‘s also the traditional communities that Leo speaks of that can be the source of the burden, given their reliance on money sent back by these players.
He believes a lot of those issues will dissolve if a Pasifika Super Rugby team is created and Aayden Clarke, the cheif executive of Pacific Rugby Players, formerly the Pacific Island Players Association, agrees.
“What it provides is more opportunity for the young players coming through, the ability to make the decision on would they like to stay with their families and earn a living in the Pacific or would they like to go to Europe and at the moment they don‘t have that option.”
Clarke has seen the feasibility study and is involved in the discussions.
He‘s hopeful the team will be up and running by 2020.
“We‘re at those tables, talking about what it‘s going to look like from 2020 (when the current Super Rugby broadcast deal expires).
“From our perspective a Pacific Island team and having the opportunities for players as soon as possible is the best option, but there‘s a lot of detail to work through and SANZAAR and World Rugby and all the parties are working quite frantically through that at the moment.”
But who will pay for it? There‘s whispers the New Zealand government is interested to combat the growing Chinese influence in the Islands.
However, RNZ understands the government would play no role in the start up or running of the team, with private investors needed to make the side a commercial entity that‘s self funding and self sustainable.
As yet no-one‘s publicly put their hands up.
It‘s not just about money either, with a player base, management, and high performance infrastructure needed.
Samoan New Zealander and Super rugby commentator Ken Laban claims his gut feeling is the team will get across the line, but he said getting big name investors could be problematic. However he said the Islands relative lack of international coporates could help pave the way for a global brand to try and enter the Pacific market, in this case via a Super Rugby team.
He also believes it would be a tough ask getting the region‘s top players to relocate their families back to the Islands and in some cases third world living conditions, unless a large financial carrot is dangled.
Leo said the last thing Pasifika rugby needed was a one-hit wonder.
“This has got to be something that‘s sustainable. It can‘t be a flash in the pan where we‘re responsible for creating a team and in three years it folds and all of a sudden 30 or 40 contracted players are back at square one, and they‘re all looking to come to Europe at once. We don‘t want that as it‘s getting tough [in Europe].”
Considering the contribution the Islands have made to global rugby, most agree a Pasifika Super team is long overdue.
And Leo has a stark warning for world rugby – ignore the Pacific Islands and they‘ll ignore you.
“The Rugby League World Cup had a huge impact, especially the way the Mate Ma‘a Tonga team performed (beating New Zealand and reaching the semi-finals, becoming the first tier two nation to beat a tier one side).
“We‘ve also got access in the islands to all of the American football (NFL) stuff as well and that‘s become another credible pathway for players. Ex-NFL stars of Samoan decent ran a camp at St Joseph‘s College, which is traditionally one of Samoa‘s strongest rugby schools, so the sharks are circling.”
The longer the islands are left without a Super Rugby team, the more blood those sharks will start to smell.