The key factors stopping a Pacific Island Super Rugby franchise
17 September, 2018, 10:28 pm
AUCKLAND, 17 SEPTEMBER 2018 (NZ HERALD) – Finances and governance. These familiar, ongoing issues continue to cloud the Pacific Islands’ possible Super Rugby inclusion and their collective fight for equality.
Sir Bryan Williams put the subject of Pacific Island neglect firmly back on the agenda when he took aim at World Rugby and Sanzaar following his induction into the Hall of Fame this week, saying their exclusion from mainstream competitions was “a blight on the game”.
Sanzaar hopes to announce Super Rugby’s future – for 2021 and beyond – in November.
A case for a combined Islands team, based in Suva, is being considered. But, as World Rugby’s top brass explain, significant barriers still exist and it therefore seems unlikely to door will open any time soon.
Part of the issue centres on whether enough of the more than 500 European-based Island players would return home, given the need to take huge salary cuts and the fact most move overseas to financially support their extended families.
“We’re really compromised from World Rugby and Sanzaar to see which is the best way forward,” World Rugby vice-chairman Agustin Pichot told the Herald on Sunday.
“It’s a very delicate situation. They make so much money in France and England, so bringing them to play for their home nations is complicated.”
When Argentina’s Jaguares first gained inclusion in Super Rugby, World Rugby stepped up to assist the transition of players returning from Europe.
“In Argentina, the contracts are very high compared to the Pacific,” Pichot said. “We’re at the same level as New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. The problem some Pacific Islanders have is they don’t have that playing for their home unions.
“We are working very hard but it is quite challenging. The Pacific have submitted a Super Rugby team and that’s going through the process. There are a lot of things that come into consideration.
“It’s not about someone putting money into it. We are wrong if it is only about money. Argentina didn’t come to the Rugby Championship or Super Rugby because someone put money in. It was a process from academies to teams … it was a 10-year process.”
Pressed on plans for the Island nations, World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper said the governing body invests £26 million ($51.8m) into the Pacific every four years, and emphasised Sanzaar presided over Super Rugby.
“We’d like to see great players stay in their part of the world as long as possible,” Gosper said.
“Super Rugby has its challenges in some areas, as all leagues do. They have to make those calculations themselves in terms of what it is going to bring to the competition, and what are the costs of bringing them in.
“From a World Rugby development point of view, it makes sense. But when you’re looking at it from a commercial perspective, and we don’t have access to that, they might have a different point of view.
“The good thing is those and other ideas are being investigated. How can you try to ensure those players who come out of those areas don’t get sent overseas; they stay in the region, can be gathered together for their national unions and they can spend their careers in, or close to, their countries?
“That’s something we’re working on and thinking about all the time.”
Clearly no solutions yet, though. Governance is the other major issue.
Elusive Tongan Rugby chief executive Fe’ao Vunipola, appointed in an interim capacity three years ago, is said to be answerable to no one, to the point former Hurricanes lock turned national team manager Inoke Afeaki recently quit in protest.
Tongan coach Toutai Kefu, the former Wallabies No8, has criticised the chief executive for not attending tests, and high-profile players spoke out about delayed match payments last June.
In Samoa, where the Prime Minister rules the rugby roost, the union is being forced to find a new head coach after it went against the High Performance Investment Agreement to reappoint former mentor Fuimaono Titimaea Tafua. World Rugby then refused to pay his salary.
Such issues hurt the Pacific’s case for Super Rugby inclusion, and also create clashes with the Pacific Rugby Players Welfare (PRPW) group’s attempts to push for greater representation on World Rugby voting boards.
For now, the Pacific’s only influence on World Rugby Council falls under Oceania Rugby, which has two votes from 48.
That regional umbrella also represents the interests of New Zealand and Australia, who each hold an additional three votes.
PRPW considers this “unfair inequality” – not least because over 21 per cent of all athletes at the 2015 World Cup were of Island descent.
Given the flow of Islan talent abroad, and global attraction their size and skill draws, there is also a moral argument that more should be done to create sustainable pathways.
“They are an incredibly important part of the world game, sevens and XVs,” Gosper said.
“At different times in the last few years, there have been different challenges for each of the Pacific Islands, usually around the area of governance, and we work through those.
“We do everything we can. But we do also insist on good governance as partners with them. There have been some recent challenges in Samoa and Tonga. Fiji are in very good shape, on and off field.
“There is a pathway through to a seat on council for any country if they achieve certain criteria, one of which is a number of years of uncontested books. Fiji are on their way to that.”
And so, the merry-go-round of frustrated Island nations left out in the cold persists..