Full time pro rugby in Pacific still just a dream

In the movie Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner’s character Ray hears a mysterious voice one night in his cornfield, urging him that “If you build it, they will come”. Ray builds a baseball diamond and sure enough the ghosts of great players, led by Shoeless Joe Jackson, walk out of the corn crops to play ball.

What rugby in the Pacific Islands would give for a dose of Hollywood.

Samoa, Fiji and Tonga have been massive contributors to rugby when it comes to players but have, for far too long, been snubbed when it comes to truly supporting and developing the game in the tiny islands.

New Zealand Rugby revealed this week the All Blacks will play Japan, in Japan, next year as part of the build up to the Rugby World Cup there in 2019. It’s a way to familiarise themselves with the country and a push to secure their spot as the people’s second team, after Japan’s Brave Blossoms. Both are worthy goals but it’s hard not to look again to the Pacific Islands and wonder, when will their turn come?

Next year’s game will be the eighth match the All Blacks play in Japan and the fourth time they will play the national team there. No Japan-born player has ever played for the All Blacks.

Yet 10 Tonga-born players have slipped the black jersey over broad shoulders. The All Blacks have never played in Nuku'alofa. And 10 Fiji-born players have graced the All Blacks, usually as excitement machines on the wing. The All Blacks haven’t set foot in Suva since 1984.

As a build-up to this year’s British and Irish Lions tour, the All Blacks will play Samoa at Eden Park. It will be the seventh test between them but as most rugby fans know, only one of those has been in Samoa, in 2015. Yet 14 Samoa-born players have represented New Zealand and (like Fiji and Tonga) many more All Blacks are proud of their Polynesian ancestry.

What must hurt Fiji and Samoa is that they were once part of the South Pacific Championship (Fiji) and Super 10 (Samoa), but when Sanzar was created ahead of the inaugural Super Rugby competition in 1996, neither had a seat at the table.

And when Sanzar added an extra “a” to its name with the addition of Argentina, and even when the Super 15 became a not-so-Super 18, none of the three Pacific Island nations were asked to join. Yet New Zealand and Australia in particular continue to benefit from the Pacific’s player production lines.

Fiji did get a taste of Super rugby last year when the Chiefs hosted the Crusaders in a “home” game in Suva and they are back again on Friday. And the Blues will take on the Reds in Apia next month after they decided three games in two and a half weeks at Eden Park, followed by two tests against the Lions was too much for their fans’ wallets. Add in the recently confirmed double header between the All Blacks and Samoa, and Tonga against Wales, a week before the first Lions tests, and that decision makes even more sense.

“We think we are reaching saturation point for our fans,” Blues CEO Michael Redman says. “With the number of games being played in such a short period of time it gave us the opportunity (to take a game to Samoa).”

So, as good as it will be to see the Blues in Samoa, this is really a match of convenience - a game shifted to alleviate the surplus of rugby in Auckland.

Redman says taking the game to Samoa will cost the Blues “well north of half a million” as they have to shoulder any extra costs incurred by shifting the game from Auckland. That means compensating broadcaster Sky TV and the Reds, along with the added costs of flying the Blues players, management and match support staff to Samoa.

It wouldn’t have happened without the financial support of the Samoan government and telecommunications company BlueSky. Selling all of the 8400 seats at Apia Stadium will help too.

Much has been made of the ticket prices, which range from NZ$20-$250, but they simply highlight the difficulty of hosting expensive events in impoverished countries. It’s something rugby administrators are quick to use when justifying Samoa, Tonga and Fiji’s absence from meaningful competitions.

Redman says it is too early to say whether the Blues match will be a success, and if they’ll be back. “We won’t know till we know if we have sold the ground out. And it’s difficult to know if they could sustain a team on a permanent basis. I’m not sure if one game will allow us to judge that.”

Ken Laban isn’t sure they can. A proud New Zealand-born Samoan, Laban will be in Apia as part of Sky’s commentary team for the Blues game, just as he was for the All Blacks test. While he is quick to point out Samoa has a progressive economy, stable government and a Prime Minister and people who love rugby, they simply don’t have the money to fund a team based in Apia.

“The cost of 35 players and staff would not be able to be covered by Samoa on its own,” Laban says. “There would need to be commercial partners outside Samoa - corporates with a global perspective on being a good corporate citizen.”

That’s not the case, he believes, in Fiji, where money and infrastructure are not an issue. Fiji could soon have a team in Australia’s provincial rugby competition, and in league’s New South Wales Cup. “The logic of Fiji hosting a Super Rugby franchise has to be part of the conversation for the future,” Laban says.

No one should hold their breath. Sanzaar has realised it made a huge error when it expanded to 18 teams but the decision to cull the competition to 15 has hit a few road blocks, with threats of legal action in Australia where one team is set to be cut. Adding more teams from the Pacific just isn’t going to happen in the short term.

The fields are there, ready and waiting, but for now, professional rugby in the Islands remains just a dream.

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