Rugby aims to open up new frontiers this year when Japan host the first World Cup held in Asia, but the talent-rich Pacific island nations feel they are still being neglected by the game’s powerbrokers.
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.
Lobby group Pacific Rugby Players Welfare estimates about 20 percent of all professional players come from islander backgrounds, highlighting the region’s contribution to the international game.
While the figure is open to interpretation, there is no doubt Pacific islanders have long bolstered the Test squads of New Zealand and Australia, and more recently England and France.
Fiji coach John McKee said there was an “X-factor” about Pacific rugby which could electrify the game.
“They’re very gifted athletes and have that warrior spirit, which goes back in their history. It’s in their DNA and carries on into their rugby,” he said.
But for all their on-field attributes, the Pacific nations face serious off-field issues that prevent them from consistently challenging the game’s global superpowers.
Some are beyond their control, including geographic isolation, lack of financial resources and the actions of player agents luring top talent overseas.
Other problems such as poor governance and political interference in the game can be controlled and there are signs things are slowly improving.
The islands, with a collective population of less than 1.5 million, lack financial clout and most promising players soon sign for foreign clubs, making it hard to forge a cohesive national team.
“Our top players are spread all around the world, particularly in Europe,” McKee said.
“So keeping an eye on their form, current fitness and injury status is a major task for us.
“It puts us at a disadvantage against our competitors, particularly tier one nations, who get a lot more time together.”
For years, some unscrupulous player agents exacerbated the problem, signing up budding teenage stars to one-sided European club contracts in a situation former Fiji sevens coach Ben Ryan likened to “the Wild West”.
McKee said tighter eligibility rules in Europe meant the problem had eased but young players still needed support when leaving their family networks to travel to a foreign culture where they often did not speak the local language.
“For some people, taking them over there was a numbers game — if they can get 10 players in France and one becomes a superstar that’s great for the agent,” he said.
“But who looks after the other nine who don’t get contracts? They slip down the levels and end up playing federale (amateur) rugby. It’s difficult to make a living.”
Further complicating matters, the governing rugby unions in Fiji, Tonga and Samoa have all faced questions in recent years about how they run the game.
Concerns have ranged from financial irregularities to incompetence and political interference.
“A lot of (problems) have come from home, from the Fijian Rugby Union,” said Englishman Ryan, who coached Fiji’s sevens team to Olympic gold at the Rio 2016 Games.
“There’s serious things they need to get better at around governance and things like that.”
Again, there has been improvement. Fiji and Samoa were welcomed onto an expanded World Rugby Council late last year after meeting strict governance criteria laid down by the game’s ruling body.
Fiji showed their potential with a historic Test win over France last November and McKee was confident they could spring more surprises in Japan.
But World Rugby’s recently discarded plan for a cross-hemisphere Nations Championship highlights how the game’s top brass often treat the Pacific islands as an afterthought.
Initial indications were that the islands would be excluded from the competition’s top division entirely, although World Rugby said after coming under intense pressure that Fiji would have a spot.
McKee said even then Fiji would be at a disadvantage because its players, mostly Europe-based, would be regularly pitted against the world’s best teams without having enough time together to prepare properly.
“What we need is a professional team in a professional competition which allows us to keep our players,” he said, citing the way the Buenos Aires-based Jaguares Super Rugby team had lifted the Argentine national side.
A proposal for a Pacific islands Super Rugby team was scrapped late last year after organisers decided it was not commercially viable.
But McKee said if World Rugby was intent on global expansion and pursuing lucrative broadcast rights, then it needed to use some of the money to help the Pacific islands.
“There’s certainly no easy solutions but a solution needs to be found,” he said