Time for rugby’s jazzmen to be allowed to play
Is it finally time for Pacific rugby to come in from the cold in a new Super Rugby competition? Jim Kayes says it's time to believe.
In Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, the two lead characters wait on a country road, by a tree, for Godot’s arrival.
He never appears.
Beckett could have written a tragicomedy called “Waiting for a Super Rugby team in the Pacific”, too.
He might also have called that team Godot because, like his character in the 1953 play, a team in the Pacific has been the source of huge debate (through a lot more than two Acts) but no one knows if it will ever exist.
It did, sort of, for a time, with Fiji playing in the old South Pacific Championship and Samoa in the Super 10 but when rugby turned professional and Sanzar was created, there was no room at the buffet for either team.
And when Sanzaar added the extra ‘A’ it was for Argentina - not A Team in the Pacific despite the huge contribution Tonga, Samoa and Fiji have made to rugby in New Zealand and, more recently, Australia.
That could be about to change with talk that a revamped Super Rugby competition will see South Africa ditched and a Pacific team included in a competition that features five New Zealand sides and either two or four from Australia.
But don’t hold your breath, folks. We’ve been here before. Godot may remain a mythical character.
And even if a Pacific team does get a decades-overdue tick, setting it up won’t be simple.
Where will it be based, who should be eligible to play in it, and - most importantly - who will pay for it?
“The best people to lead this are New Zealand Rugby,” says former Tonga captain Inoke Afeaki who also captained the Pacific Islanders side that played tests against the Wallabies, All Blacks and Springboks in 2004.
It can’t be run by any of the Samoa, Fiji or Tonga rugby unions because corruption, he says, is too rife.
Instead it needs to be managed from New Zealand with a combination of private investment and Pacific government support.
“To do the things required to see things are done properly, it must be run out of New Zealand,” says Afeaki, who is now back in Wellington after three years working for Tonga’s Olympic Committee and Sports Council.
“There is too much corruption in the islands. It is part of business and part of our culture and it’s something that, culturally, we haven’t confronted and fixed.”
But don’t mistake that for Afeaki thinking a Pacific based team won’t work.
Far from it.
He is confident that, with the right people involved, a Super Rugby franchise, based in Fiji with games played in Apia and Nuku’alofa, could be successful off the field.
He is even more confident they will be a success on it - having been a part of the Pacific Islanders team that melded the fierce rivalries of Tonga, Samoa and Fiji into a competitive outfit back in 2004.
With players like Sitiveni Sivivatu, Brian Lima, Seilala Mapusua and Moses Rauluni in the backs, and a pack that included Sione Lauaki, Semo Sititi, Filipo Levi and Alexi Lutui, the Pacific Islanders thrashed Queensland and New South Wales in their warm up games.
And though they lost the three tests, they scored twice against Australia and four tries in both tests against New Zealand and South Africa.
It was, Afeaki remembers fondly, a team that oozed X-factor.
“We had so much talent, it was unscripted rugby but if rugby is entertainment then we were the show. If we were music we were freestyle jazz. It wasn’t written, it was just good and you can have a few wines while you listen to it.”
The problem though, is paying for it.
It costs about $10 million to fund a Super Rugby team and that sort of cash isn’t growing on coconut trees.
It’s not growing on Pohutukawa much either and Afeaki suggests it is obvious, if not fully acknowledged, that the current professional rugby model is broken.
Something has to change and NZR’s much anticipated review of its game is tipped to herald those changes.
But players will still want to be paid and Super Rugby on a budget won’t entice back Pacific Islanders plying their trade in Europe or Japan.
China is a significant presence in the islands and there could be money from there; and World Rugby talks a good game about supporting development in the Pacific, but would they fund a Super team? Probably not.
When Manu Samoa were magnificent in the 1990s, merchant bankers Fay Richwhite were paying the bills and it is that sort of private backing that Afeaki thinks is required again.
The other question is: who gets to play in this team; in essence, what is its purpose?
Afeaki, who played at three World Cups, says the desperate need is to try and close the gap between Samoa, Fiji and Tonga and the big boys at an international level.
So players from those three countries clearly need to feature heavily, but he thinks a smattering of other players - All Blacks and Wallabies preferably - should be included too.
The trick is to open eligibility throughout Super Rugby so that players can be in any team without it affecting their test status.
Think about that for a minute. You could have Ofa Tu'ungafasi at prop, Brodie Retallick at lock, Hoskins Sotutu packing down at No8, Rieko Ioane at centre and Beauden Barrett at fullback, but all still playing for the All Blacks.
And the five New Zealand franchises would have no cap on the players they could pick from the Islands and, if they wanted, Australia.
Suddenly it is a truly international club competition.
And the coaches? Well Tabai Matson, Alama Ieremia and Filo Tiatia would be a handy start, with Afeaki offering to come on as manager.
And overseeing this...Samoa chief Tupuivao Steve Hansen.
Surely it’s not as fanciful as Godot.
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