Pacific nations must proceed with care

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Mata'afa Keni Lesa

The so-called secret plan by New Zealand Rugby (N.Z.R.) and the New Zealand government to establish a ‘Pacific Force’ team to enter Super Rugby in a couple of years is an interesting development.

While it presents an exciting opportunity for cash-strapped Pacific rugby nations like Samoa, it might have come a little too late; possibly missing the boat in as far as Super Rugby excitement goes. 

With due respect, the glory days of Super Rugby are behind it. 

Rumours that teams from South Africa are threatening to pull out obviously tell us that something is not quite right. Looking across the Tasman to Australia doesn’t give you much confidence either given the form of their teams lately.

Keep in mind that the Force from Perth has already embarked on a separate competition, looking at utilizing the talents available in the Pacific.

Which makes this latest stunt by the New Zealand Rugby Union and the New Zealand government even more interesting. 

It is early days yet. That much we know. But from what we’ve been told so far the feasibility study was carried out one Jeremy Curragh, costing New Zealand taxpayers a whopping $136,000. From that study, there is apparently a plan to base the Pacific Force in Suva,  with home games in Samoa, Tonga, Auckland and Sydney. The team would also be apparently set up as an independent franchise.

Where will the funding come? And how will the players be picked? No one seems to know. But that’s okay. Like we said, it’s early days yet.

When the news broke, the Samoa Rugby Union (S.R.U.) had taken a very conservative approach, indicating it is open to the idea.

“Please note that S.R.U. does not have any comment with regards to the proposed funded Super Rugby team by the New Zealand Government comprising players from Samoa, Fiji and Tonga,” the Union said in a statement. “However, S.R.U. is open to such opportunity if it comes up.”

Elsewhere, the feedback has been a mixed bag for a number of reasons. The first reason is that the idea of a Pacific combined team is not new. It has been tried before and while it found some success, it did not work.

Former Manu Samoa captain, Seilala Mapusua, who was an integral part of that team, knows this so that he is skeptical. He said the idea is not a new concept but they have usually failed due to political in-fighting. 

“There’s always going to be problems and I’m sure there will be a lot of teething issues should this plan come to fruition,” Mapusua said. “But I’m sure it’s something that can be worked through. I’m hoping the powers that be will see the greater cause here and the benefits of having a Pacific Island team in this competition.”

Another former Manu Samoa, Ofisa Jnr. Tonu’u, said the plan is long overdue and it has the potential to change the fortunes of teams like the Manu Samoa who have been struggling for the best part of the last five years.

“Samoa rugby was strong so it was competitive on the world stage and now we’re falling off - 16th ranking in the world. Tonga is 13th and Fiji is 10th so this will help that growth,” he said.

Former Manu Samoa coach, Sir Tuifaasisina Bryan Williams, sees a great opportunity. 

“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,” he said. “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 said a Pacific Super rugby team would directly result in stronger national teams for Samoa, Fiji and Tonga. He said the Samoa in particular have suffered by not having a Super Rugby presence and says all the Island nations would benefit from a combined team.

“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,” he said. 

“It (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.”

We can’t fault Tuifa’asisina for his enthusiasm and excitement. He played a critical role in changing the worldview of Samoa as a rugby nation and a man of his caliber and experience would certainly know what’s best to revive Samoan rugby. Keep in mind that the demise of Samoan rugby has not just been the result of the lack of international competition, corruption, poor management, lack of transparency and accountability have also sadly been a major contributor.

But that’s a story for another day.

Today, it’s exciting to think that New Zealand government is getting behind the plan. But why now? Why has it taken so long? Do the wheels of rugby – or justice in this case – turn this slowly?

The fact is for many, many years now, the Pacific countries have been calling for a Pacific team – or teams - to be included in Super Rugby. And yet that call had been largely ignored. What’s worse is that the powers that be at Super rugby have making life very hard for Pacific nations with the eligibility rules and the like. To add insult to injury, they offered an opportunity to South America, then Asia of all places while coolly ignoring their poor brothers and sisters in their backyard. And now that Super Rugby is slowly but surely dying, we suddenly get this big secret plan thrown in our faces as if it’s a god-sent.

Let’s proceed with care. What do you think? 

Have a great Thursday Samoa, God bless!

© Samoa Observer 2016

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