'They are private conversations' - Fekitoa's watershed moment just the beginning
Seilala Mapusua, the Samoa head coach, believes that when former All Black Malakai Fekitoa pulls on the Tonga jersey to captain the country of his birth for the first time in Monaco tomorrow it will signal a watershed moment in Pacific Islands rugby history.
Wasps centre Fekitoa, 29, is representing Tonga in this weekend’s Tokyo Olympic sevens qualification tournament in Monaco despite having won 24 test caps for the All Blacks between 2014 and 2017.
Fekitoa is now eligible to play for the nation of his birth because he holds a Tongan passport and has stood down from international rugby for three years and by competing in the Olympic Games qualifying tournament and playing 50 per cent of the games he will satisfy another of the obstacles to swapping nations.
World Rugby President Bill Beaumont is set to review of Regulation 8 which covers eligibility to play for national teams “to see how we can support the longevity of players’ international careers”.
World Rugby has been under increasingly pressure to allow players who have represented one country but now want to switch allegiance and Mapusua is in talks with a number of players he wants to represent Samoa who next month face Tonga in two qualifying matches for the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France.
Mapusua, the former London Irish and Samoa centre told RugbyPass: “When you have high profile players like Malakai Fekitoa and Charles Piutau in the discussion about switching countries and making themselves available for the Islands teams it will have major influence, particularly on the young guys coming through.
“Auckland has the biggest Samoan population in the World and there are also a lot of Tongans and you cannot underestimate the impact Fekitoa and Piutau can have. I have had a few conversations with guys who want to switch back to Samoa and it would have been great to get it over the line for the World Cup qualifiers but time was against us. Hopefully we can do that in the near future. At the moment they are private conversations.
“It is really positive that people are talking about it (regulation change) and I believe it is close to becoming reality. You do get a bit cynical after so much discussion over the years but I am really hopeful that with getting two teams (Fiji Drua and Moana Pasifika) in Super Rugby it will grow the player pool we can select from. It also means our players don’t have to moved too far to play.
“Boys will still go overseas will but there will be more competition for a spot on the international team.”
Getting a Samoa squad together for the Tonga World Cup qualifiers has given Mapusua a major headache as players need to quarantine which has removed Bristol’s Chris Vui from contention while Newcastle’s Logo Mulipola has undergone surgery and will not be fit until the end of the year. “I have lost the whole of the Northern Hemisphere because of the pandemic:” added Mapusua. “It’s been a nightmare.
“The quarantine hotel facilities in New Zealand are all booked up for June and July and if something comes free then we would have to act quickly but there is still two weeks of isolation. We play Tonga on July 10 and 17 and it is a big ask for Chris (Vui) to do that.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) June 11, 2021
“We have a few guys in the MLR in the USA and they have pushed their season back. We are lucky to be playing our World Cup games in New Zealand and we are working hard to deal with things. We should have our players available at the start of the week of the first Tonga match and we have games before that against the Maori All Blacks and they will really stretch us.
“I got the head coach role during the pandemic and so this is all normal for me!”
In addition to Fekitoa, Tonga also have ex-Wallabies utility forward Lopeti Timani, ormer All Blacks Sevens representative Tima Fainga’anuku – the older brother of Crusaders star Leicester – and ex-Australian sevens star Afusipa Taumoepeau in their squad and have been drawn in Pool A with Zimbabwe, Mexico and Ireland with France in the Pool B alongside Hong Kong, Chile, Uganda and Jamaica. The top two teams in each pool will progress to the semi-final with the eventual winners earning the final Olympic spot.
The Olympic men’s rugby sevens competition will take place from 26-28 July, with the women’s tournament following on the 29-31 July. All the action will take place at Tokyo Stadium.
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