Pacifica Rugby Has a Place in Super Rugby

During the regular season, New Zealand Rugby and the Chiefs Super Rugby franchise made a public declaration of support for Pacifica Rugby. Not a piecemeal offer either, but a real validation to say publically “Pacifica Rugby Has a Place in Super Rugby”.

They both; along with Sky Sport (NZ media broadcaster) promoted a round of Super Rugby played in Suva, Fiji. A very successful rugby match too where the Chiefs held a ‘home game’ away from their traditional ground in Hamilton. Such a massive undertaking that was in ‘every way’ a statement that Pacifica Rugby has a future in Super Rugby.

By doing so, they made several statements on the state of the game. The teams all endorsed the venue and facilities: ANZ Stadium in Suva. The parties proactively invested in their grounds-people from Waikato Stadium to assist in preparations. The logistics were co-managed fantastically and as a result, the people of Fiji rejoiced in the match. Thankfully for the ‘home side’ as the Chiefs beat the Crusaders 23-13.

Despite the Conditions, a Positive Result for Pacifica Rugby

While the occasion was a success both on and off the park, it was the co-operation from all parties that underlines the success. The Chiefs, a team with a long history of talented Fijian and Pacific Island players, benefited from that relationship. Crucially, the Fijian government were helpful in the arrangements, while NZ Rugby too were supportive. It seemed like the ‘stars had aligned’ to ensure this match would go off without a hitch.

That meant it was a true collaborative effort. And those who enjoyed the occasion–fans, players/coaches and stakeholders–must do their best to use this example as an pre-cursor to developing the game further.

This first game played in the Pacific, the first endorsed by SANZAAR and supported in full by New Zealand (NZ) Rugby.

Pacifica Region

Pacifica is the regional grouping of South Sea Islands that make up the South Pacific. The holiday retreat for millions around the world, that groups major members are Samoa, Fiji and Tonga. These leading nations and some say, the backbone of the region, also have fine rugby histories. In terms of this first Super Rugby game played in Fiji, the game was a reinforcement of the regions status.

That was in terms of their strong reputation within World Rugby [the governing body, formerly known as the IRB]. All three, as well as the outlying islands, contribute to the complexity of the game and to the enjoyment the Pacific people find in sport. Not in terms of ‘free rugby balls’ (even though they bring big smiles) in this part of the world, respect on and off the field is key. This game gave the people a focus, apart from local games and inter-Island competition.

The Stamp of Approval from NZ Rugby

In a way, it was the ‘stamp of approval’ that the Islands had wanted. This full support reinforced the match played in 2015 between Samoa and the All Blacks. It reinforced the role that these three nations played at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, so in all respect and purposes, it was the final ‘OK’ toward higher honours.

Manu Samoa supporters before the International Test match between Samoa and the New Zealand All Blacks at Apia Stadium. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

But what honours are these to be? In other words, now that there has been a Super Rugby match played in [the] Islands, where to next?

There is no refuting the fact rugby within the region, has a high status. Every boy and girl wants to play the game. All villages have a rugby ground (where some do not have shops or a form of entertainment). Because in regions like this, in sport you can express yourself freely. And the rewards can be unheralded. From village team to provincial sides, all leading players have dreams of representing their nation/Kingdom and for a handful, appearing at a Rugby World Cup.

The recent Super Rugby experience is one of many pathways for these talented athletes. In years passed, you had to leave your home to be discovered. Today, scouts visit Islands and Schools early. Both Rugby and Rugby League now compete for this talent whereas in the time of BG Williams, Peter Fatialofa, Frank Bunce or Brian Lima, they would have to leave their home village, to make a name for themselves.

A Super Rugby team based in the Pacific

Imagine today, if there were a Super Rugby franchise that encompassed these nations (and all of the Pacific) where the likes of Waisake Naholo or Samu Kerevi can emerge onto the world stage. Both of these players, talented enough to play anywhere, each man have exported their skills to the respective countries each now represents: New Zealand and Australia.

All three nations have quality teams themselves. Fiji have retained the Pacific Nations Cup, thus earning a place at Tokyo 2019 for the next World Cup. All have proud histories and hold dreams of playing against the best. In Super Rugby, that can be an avenue towards those heights. Before then, much planning would have to be put in place.

In 2016, three teams were added to the Super Rugby competition. The Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The Jaguares, based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. And the Sunwolves from Tokyo, Japan. Added to the existing Super 15, each has had a modicum of success. Some would say ‘hardly any’.

That being said, the success of each team will need time to be proved. And then SANZAAR and it’s principal partners: South Africa, NZ, Australia and Argentina, must decide on the longterm goal of the competition. CEO Andy Marinos has indicated that a 10 year plan will be complete by the end of this year. And word is that Pacifica Rugby has a place within it. Good news you might think.

10 year Plan for Super Rugby Must Include Pacifica Rugby

While the direction that the organisation takes is very much out of the hands of the individual, the collected will of the people must be a driver for this inclusion. From island to island, within the clubs, regions and in the nations, there must be a Vision.

In a radio interview, NZ sports broadcaster Peter Williams said that ‘there must be a Holistic approach to rugby in the Pacific’. It is not about politics; as in South Africa. It is not about money; as in French rugby. It must be about the game and how it will impact it’s greatest stakeholder–the fans.

Rugby is about people. Fifteen men or women, all playing toward a single goal. The match itself is the achievement and the competition is the reward. Together, rugby in the Pacific can join together and show a solidarity that will out-passion many others. If they need to be placed in comparison to others, there is a will of the people to have a team that must seem stronger than the dollar. In simple terms, the narrative of this question is best answered in the smiles on the faces of fans on the Friday night when the Chiefs hosted the Crusaders.

In the wet and windy conditions, 19,000 strong filled ANZ Stadium and showed the passion they hold. It was the most satisfying answer to any critique of the role Pacifica plays in Super Rugby. Fans said ‘bring the match to us, and we will fill the stadium’ no matter the weather.

The Proof Must Also be in the Quality of Rugby

An argument has been made that the three new Super Rugby teams have not proved their worth on the field. The Jaguares have been the most successful side. Three significant wins and a number of close-fought losses. The Argentine side has demonstrated the strengths of their home continent. No doubt, that side will hold it’s place at the Super Rugby table.

In other words, all current sides have credentials to be in the position they are now. No disrespect to any of them. How can you? Each made a case for inclusion and in their first 12 months, each played their part. The organisation must appear to represent all the parties and to look at new markets. The Pacific nations included, so it is a difficult prospect to simplistically say ‘we need a Pacifica team’ as the popular media have reacted this weekend. Many agree, and Marinos has intimated as much.

“It [Pacifica Rugby] will have to be a case of modeling, and positioning and how they stack up” were his very words.

So the administration is looking at the options, but there are a number of options. One of those is a two-tier system. A Premier competition of 12 teams, with a feeder system with a promotion/relegation system in place. So many options have been suggested, it is not specific to the need. The need for fans of Pacifica Rugby to feel they have a team of ‘their own’.

May Come Down to Dollars and ‘Sense’

That strong desire; unfairly or not, may come down to dollars and sense. Not the most personal approach required, certainly not the ‘Island way’. In a way, the emotion will likely be taken out of any decision. A spreadsheet may in fact be the tool used, rather than a tailored consideration of the effort made over time. That system better owes it to the Pacific nations to respect their contribution which has been both historic, as well as recent.

The side of 2004 were proud, they were almost indomitable and matched all three of the Southern Hemispheres rugby powers.

Also, big name Fijian star players are represented in many European and Southern Hemisphere competitions. Think Nemani Nadolo for the Crusaders. He was a pivotal figure in marketing of the Chiefs home game. And then there is Patrick Osborne–the Highlanders and Canterbury ITM Cup winger– who chose Fiji over a chance to play for the All Blacks. A high quality provincial figure, one of many that Scott Robertson has in his defending Canterbury 2016 side. 

In that manner, the 2016 Rio Olympic Games heralded the return of Rugby to the competition. In the form of Sevens, the shortened game which is played at a frenetic pace–very much like the rugby style played in villages across the region–reinstated it’s place on the world stage. Fiji, being current HSBC Sevens Series champions, have just claimed that nations first-ever Gold medal. What a wonderful example of the legitimacy that these nations deserve.

Day 5 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Deodoro Stadium on August 10, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo Getty Images)

How deserving now is the call for a Pacifica nation within Super Rugby? Especially coming now from the Olympic Sevens Champions. Fiji would have a strong bargaining chip, to go beside their Pacific Nations Cup titles and a secured place at the 2019 Rugby World Cup. A deserving member if there ever was one, and a great base for a ‘Pacifica Super’ side.

Pacifica Rugby Has a Place in Super Rugby

While respected administrators and dignitaries within the ‘world of rugby’ will say many things, speak highly of the region and make gestures–the proof will be in the outcome. That is, in how the region either continues to grow and evolve. Or; and others assume this will be the outcome, that the same circumstances will prevail. No improvements, and that would be a travesty.

If you listed all the benefits, they would be unquestionable. If you listed the interest in making those occur, the list is short. Mainly from parties like World Rugby, the Pacific Forum, fellow rugby nations: New Zealand at the fore. Being an interested party and actually being in a position to make ‘change’ are two different things. The collective unions must be willing to embrace that change, and to force it if needed.

When the Chiefs and Crusaders play a Super Rugby game in Suva, the people and the region benefit most. If a team were based on one of the islands, or alternatively in Suva, Auckland, Sydney or even Honolulu, the emphasis must have come from the Islands. No amount of suggestion, regulation, scheduling or benefits will correct a situation that is unwilling to be proactive.

I say ‘ask the question Pacific nations’ themselves, and the answer may well be ‘Yes’.


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