Ben Ryan, the English coach of the Fijian rugby sevens gold medal winning team at the Rio Olympics, caused quite a stir recently with his caustic observations of how the Pacific Islands were being effectively ‘stripped’ by the major rugby union powers.
Indeed, much the same scenario is being played out in the sister code of rugby league.
According to Ryan, “Fiji, Samoa and Tonga produce some prodigious natural rugby talent but the Pacific Islands are being drained of even teenage potential stars by unscrupulous agents.”
“Pacific Islanders get offered contracts to play in New Zealand but only on condition they are eligible to play for the All Blacks. Australia is the same [with regards to the Wallabies],” he continued.
“In ten years time, if things don’t change, I see an Australian side with half their team coming from the Islands.”
It’s provocative stuff from Ryan, and I happen to agree with his comments.
For some time now I’ve been wondering, and this applies as much to the Kangaroos as to the Wallabies, when is an Aussie really an Aussie?
Is it when:
1. An Islander decides his professional rugby future lies in either New Zealand or Australia because World Rugby have abandoned the island nations of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga for having nothing of material value to offer other than their natural athletic talent?
2. An Islander decides he is either a Kiwi or Aussie when told he can have a professional rugby contract only if he commits himself to either being available for the All Blacks or Wallabies?
3. An Islander decides it’s much easier to become a Wallaby than an All Black, so the Islanders start migrating to Australia, purely for rugby purposes?
Is this fair? To anybody?
How can it be fair to Australia and the Wallabies, when its jersey is devalued as the team is filled increasingly by players for whom the Wallabies is only their second choice, or perhaps third choice of opportunity, but the best available to them.
How does this translate in the final ten minutes of a critical Test match when the next score either way will win or lose the Test? It is at that moment when people realise just how important their country is to them, and its values.
But if players representing the Wallabies still see themselves firstly as Fijian, or Samoan, or Tongan, or even Maori, how can they possibly give their absolute best when the chips are down?
Tatafu Polota-Nau (Wallabies) and Petero Civoniceva (Kangaroos) represent two Aussies of Tongan and Fijian heritage respectively who have given their all in the gold Wallaby jumper and green Kangaroo jumper.
But I do wonder about the commitment of a whole host of recent ‘Johnny-come-latelys’ filtering through both the Wallabies and Kangaroos, and their commitment to Australia and being Australian.
It’s difficult to name names, or know anything for sure anymore. There are Islanders born here in Australia and are technically Australian, but some feel more connected to their heritage than place of birth.
So when is an Aussie really an Aussie?
The time may not be too far away when the ARU will be required to add four hoops or bands to the gold jersey, either on the sleeves or below the ribcage of the jersey.
The four hoops/bands will be black, white, blue and red.
The black will represent Pakehas (whites) and Maoris not good enough to make the All Blacks, which is usually the only reason they would cross the Tasman Sea.
The white (Fiji), blue (Samoa) and red (Tonga) will represent the Pacific Islanders who have forsaken their native lands to chase the professional rugby contract in Australia.
What can be done to make the system fairer for everyone?
Firstly, I would expand the Rugby Championship to include a Pacific Islands team. This would then increase the RC nations from four to five.
The PI would contain the best players from Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. In effect they would be the West Indies of rugby.
Yes, it’s not a new concept, having already been tried more than a decade ago. But it’s one worth persevering with. Give Pacific Islanders back to the Pacific Islands.
A discussion would need to be held on where the PI would base themselves for home games. Suva (Fiji) could host one game each year being the largest centre. While Apia (Samoa) and Nuku’alofa (Tonga) could share the other venue in alternate years.
Or, if more cost-effective, home games could be played out of Auckland (NZ) and Brisbane (Australia) respectively.
Structurally, the Rugby Championships would see each nation play four internationals each, two at home and two away.
At Super Rugby level Fiji, Samoa and Tonga would become provincial teams. They can still compete for the rugby World Cup and Olympics as separate entities, but come together for the purpose of the Rugby Championship.
From a practical viewpoint, this is how it must be.
So instead of SANZAAR talking about expanding into Asia and North America, they must make a genuine effort to look after the Islanders, who contribute so much outstanding rugby talent to rugby.
Super Rugby would then comprise say 20 teams made up of five each from New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, two from Argentina and the three Pacific Island nations.
South Africa needs to give up its fantasy of a competitive Port Elizabeth-based Southern or Eastern Cape team populated predominately by non-whites. Send these talented players to the other franchises.
Australia and New Zealand must provide professional contract spaces for Islanders committed to representing their Island nations. They should not be penalised for this.
Australia and New Zealand are entitled to feel that if they invest time and opportunity on Island players, they are entitled to first refusal.
But the welfare of the game as a whole ought to be placed before the personal ambitions of Australia and New Zealand. Or Japan, England or France for that matter.
Besides, what’s the point, or the long-term gain, of filling your Test team with players who see your country as only a second best, or third best opportunity?
International rugby is suffering because people involved in the game are unwilling and perhaps morally incapable of standing up and doing the right thing, for upholding integrity.