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Pacific rugby setback

Fairfax
Wednesday, December 04, 2013

It was a quiet meeting and it passed with little fanfare and even less media attention.

Five months ago, a group of men of Pacific Island heritage, most of them former rugby players, met a group of men who run international rugby, several also former players.

The subject of discussion was the health and future of Polynesian rugby. And the message was clear. One is poor, the other is heading towards terminal.

The first group were from the newly-formed Pacific Islands Players' Association (PIPA). Their detailed presentation was to the International Rugby Board (IRB).

Fairfax Media has obtained some of the material and it paints a striking picture.

For example, there are currently 632 players eligible to play at Test level for Island nations. Of them, 272 play rugby overseas. But only 198 are actually available to play for Samoa, Tonga or Fiji. That means 74 players have fallen through the cracks and been lured to rival nations.

"It comes down to opportunities," former Samoan midfielder Seilala Mapusua explains.

"There's 30 or 40 that have played for the All Blacks. To me they're still New Zealanders. They're just of Pacific Island decent.

"A guy like Manu Tuilagi playing for England — I think good on him. He's now able to look after his family and set himself up.

"But it's a shame that they're not playing for their country of heritage. That's what we're trying to do with PIPA. To even out the playing field so they will choose to play for the Pacific Island teams knowing they're going to be looked after."

It has become painfully apparent to even the most casual of international rugby fans that a vicious cycle which strips Pacific rugby of its best talent is entrenched in the game and that little is being done about it.

For some it has become too much. Frustrated by a series of perceived injustices, Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu became a serial tweeter during the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

He bombarded the IRB with accusations that ultimately achieved little more than his banishment from the game.

Others have tried to be a little more subtle but met the same equally stiff opposition.

To some degree, PIPA is the last roll of the dice for New Zealand's Pacific Island colleagues. They feel the only way forward is to empower current players and create the foundation for one strong and united voice.

Mapusua, who has 26 Tests for Samoa under his wing, is an influential figure in PIPA along with former Fijian captain and Chiefs prop, Deacon Manu (13 Tests), former Southland flanker Hale T-Pole (24 for Tonga) and former Samoan captain Mahonri Schwalger (36 Tests).

PIPA has also linked with the New Zealand and International Players' Associations, securing support as well as additional political nous to push for change. There's no promise of an altered landscape overnight. But, finally, there is a starting point.