WORLD RUGBY HAS received widespread support for backing plans to include two Pacific Island teams – the Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika – in the southern hemisphere’s Super Rugby competition from 2022, 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% of all professional rugby 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.
Ireland beat Samoa at the last World Cup. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama called it “fantastic news”.
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“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.
The fate of the two Pacific teams 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 a £1.2m annual funding package for an initial three-year period to help the two franchises to 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 (€6 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 private backers with deep pockets, which are scarce in Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, where the combined population is only about 1.5 million.
Tonga fans at the 2019 World Cup. Source: Photosport/John Cowpland/INPHO
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.