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'I'm not convinced': Ex-All Black and broadcaster clash over whether NZR has 'the backbone or the stomach' to help Moana Pasifika succeed

By Alex McLeod

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Sky broadcaster Ken Laban has questioned whether New Zealand Rugby [NZR] has “the backbone or the stomach” to ensure Moana Pasifika will become successful upon their entry into next year’s new-look professional competition.

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Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua were last week granted conditional licences to join a 12-team competition, that will also feature the New Zealand and Australian Super Rugby teams, from next year onwards.

The decision to induct Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua into the competition has been widely celebrated as it gives Pacific Island-based players a pathway to professionalism without having to look abroad for opportunities.

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That was reflected when Moana Pasifika general manager Kevin Senio confirmed earlier this week that 80 percent of the side’s playing roster would comprise of players who have played or are eligible for those three nations or any other Pacific Island nation.

He said that would leave eight spots for players who are ineligible to represent Fiji, Samoa, Tonga or any other Pacific Island test side.

However, Laban took a cynical view of those restrictions and Moana Pasifika’s inclusion in the competition given the fate of former expansion sides in Super Rugby over the past decade-and-a-half.

Speaking on The Breakdown on Monday, Laban pointed to the inclusion of the Western Force and Sunwolves in previous editions of Super Rugby as examples of expansion teams that have failed to perform as a result of poor governance.

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The Western Force were one of two new teams, alongside the Cheetahs out of South Africa, included in Super Rugby in 2006 but were controversially axed from the competition in 2017 as the league downgraded from 18 teams to 15.

The Sunwolves, meanwhile, were one of three new teams included in 2016 but struggled for competitiveness throughout their time in the competition and were dropped last year after posting just nine wins from 67 matches.

Both sides are two of numerous expansion franchises, such as the Southern Kings and Melbourne Rebels, that have struggled for results throughout Super Rugby history.

Laban said he hoped Moana Pasifika – who, unlike the Fijian Drua, are starting from scratch after having only made their debut against the Maori All Blacks last December – doesn’t suffer the same fate as the Force and Sunwolves.

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“Not that I want to be negative, it’s certainly not my intention, but I just wonder if our game has got the backbone or the stomach to see this through,” Laban told The Breakdown.

“We saw with the Western Force they lasted 10 years, but then they were tossed out in very controversial circumstances.

“I was in Japan in 2016 when the Sunwolves played their first game at Prince Chichibunomiya Stadium after, in 2015, the national team beat South Africa, greatest upset of all-time.

“There was huge support. What’s the Japan economy? I think it’s about eighth in the world, 127 million [people]. They last five years, they won nine games out of [67] games.

“Controversial, and in the end, they lost the vote [to remain in Super Rugby], and I look at these restrictions that have been placed on the Moana Pasifika team, and there is nobody in the world of rugby that wants to see the Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua teams fail.

“We want it to be successful. They’re not going to be successful if everyone hides all the players from them.”

Effectively accusing NZR of stockpiling the country’s best Pacific Island players from being recruited by Moana Pasifika, Laban used Blues props Ofa Tuungafasi, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Nepo Laulala and Alex Hodgman as examples of NZR withholding their top talent from the new franchise.

“As an example, Tuungafasi and Tu’inukuafe are not starting at the Blues because Hodgman and Laulala are starting, but they’ve been re-signed, so Moana Pasifika doesn’t have access to them.”

He added that Hurricanes duo Asafo Aumua and Vaea Fifita also fall under similar conditions.

“Dane Coles has just re-signed for the Hurricanes through until 2023, so what does that mean in game time for Asafo Aumua? Under these rules, Asafo – very proud, young Samoan kid – can’t play for Moana Pasifika.

“Vaea Fifita. There’s another example. I love Vaea as a player, I wish he gets more game time at the Hurricanes. He’s a big, strong, aggressive player. Under these rules, he’s not eligible for Moana Pasifika, but he’s somewhere back in the depth chart [for NZR].

“I’m not convinced that we are setting them up to be successful if we’re just going to keep all the good players off them.”

Ex-All Blacks wing Sir John Kirwan said that, while he agreed that Moana Pasifika need to be competitive as soon as they enter the new competition, he disagreed with the notion that signing capped All Blacks would be beneficial for the franchise.

The former Italy, Japan and Blues head coach indicated that he views Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua as vehicles to improve the Fijian, Samoan and Tongan national teams, and the make-up of their playing squads should reflect that.

He added that now those teams are set to be inducted into the new league, they are in direct competition with their future opponents for playing talent.

Kirwan said that in the case of Moana Pasifika – who Senio confirmed will initially be based out of South Auckland, where both the Blues and Chiefs have a strong presence in – competition for signing players may be tougher than if they were based in Samoa or Tonga.

“This is where I disagree with you because if you are in South Auckland, and I’m the Blues or the Chiefs, I’m going to sign my kids for 10 years. This is now about competing for the money that’s out there that’s thin on the ground anyway,” he said.

“I don’t know if bringing back some of the elder statesmen of Pacific rugby who are towards the end [of their careers] is helping Pacific rugby, to be fair.

“You bring back Jerome Kaino, what is he going to do for Pacific rugby moving forwards? That’s what I’m worried about.

“Nothing against Jerome, so my problem is maybe we need to say, ‘If you’ve played under 10 test matches for New Zealand or Australia, or even England’ – remember we’ve got some Pacific Island boys up there – ‘you can go back and play for Samoa, Tonga or Fiji, and then you can play for Moana Pasifika’.

“I would prefer to see that, and then, they’re coming back to play for a reason and they can go and represent Tonga, Samoa and Fiji in the World Cup.”

Kirwan added: “You put them in this competitive environment, there’s not enough money out there for the three of them [Blues, Chiefs and Moana Pasifika], but if they’re in Samoa, I reckon it’s different.”

Senio told The Breakdown that Moana Pasifika’s recruitment plan was to balance the acquisitions of foreign-based Pacific Island players with those currently playing their trade in “national A-level” leagues and national U20 programmes in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.

However, Laban suggested Moana Pasifika need the best possible players available for them in order for the franchise to hit the ground running as a competitive outfit.

He used the Brisbane Broncos and Melbourne Storm in the NRL, and the New Zealand Breakers in the NBL, as examples of expansion franchises that succeeded upon their inclusion in their respective leagues because they were given a free licence to sign who they wanted.

The Broncos made their debut in what was then known as the NSWRL in 1988, won their first premiership in 1992, and have since gone on to claim six titles.

The Storm, meanwhile, first entered the NRL in 1998, won their first title a year later, and have become one of the competition’s most dominant sides after having won six titles – two of which were stripped due to salary cap breaches – and missing the play-offs just twice since their inception.

As for the Breakers, who entered Australia’s premier basketball competition in 2003, the Auckland-based team have gone on to claim four championships, including a hat-trick of titles between 2011 and 2013.

“My point is about the quality of the roster. Those three franchise teams [Breakers, Broncos and Storm] that have been unbelievably successful, franchise extension teams, was because they were allowed access to quality players,” Laban said.

“Obviously with our game, you can’t win without the ball, so you need quality players that can win the ball.

“So, we go back to that argument about there are 20 Pasifika players in the Wallabies. There are 17 in the All Blacks. That’s 37 of the elite Pasifika players that Moana Pasifika doesn’t have access to.”

He added: “I’m just saying do we want Moana Pasifika to be competitive? Otherwise, are they going to follow the same route as the Force and the Sunwolves?”

Kirwan countered Laban’s point by questioning what success means for Moana Pasifika if those who play the franchise, like capped All Blacks, can’t go on to “help Samoa and Tonga at the next World Cup”.

“But what’s success, Ken? What I’ve understood is success is helping Samoa and Tonga become more competitive,” Kirwan said.

“You pick those players, that’s not going to help anyone, so all I’m saying is if you want to help Samoa and Tonga, then make some rules.

“Make some rules where, actually, we can sustain this for the next 20 years. There’s no use picking Ofa Tuungafasi because he’s going to do nothing for Tonga.”

Former Chiefs, Crusaders and Fiji assistant coach turned Sky Sport analyst Tabai Matson weighed in on the matter by taking a balanced approach to both Laban’s and Kirwan’s arguments.

The former All Blacks and Fiji midfielder agreed with Kirwan that the sustainability of Moana Pasifika is crucial, noting that developing a pathway into the franchise for local players in Samoa and Tonga is vital for the region’s long-term success.

“I think there’s two things here. There’s the chat about the pathway and the sustainability, and on the back of that is the strategic alignment with Tonga and Samoa, so there is the pathway of players coming from the Islands into that platform,” Matson said.

“It will definitely help the World Cup programmes, or the international programmes, because they’ll have a platform to bring their players in and play at a consistent level. That’s really, really important.”

However, he reaffirmed Laban’s point that Moana Pasifika need to target the best possible players available to them in the early stages of their existence, even if that means signing capped All Blacks, to make themselves as competitive as possible.

“They’ve got to compete straight away because they get a first impression and everybody [will be] watching them when they play the Blues or the Crusaders at Eden Park or down in Christchurch, and so they’ve got to compete off the bat.

“If that means that they’ve got to bolster it with some old dogs coming back, then I think that’s going to be really important.

“One of the things the Pacific Island is famous for is they’re way-finders. They’ve found a way, and I think this gives them the platform to find a way. There’s no best practice so far, but they’ll find a way.”

Listen to the latest episode of the Aoteaora Rugby Pod below:

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'I'm not convinced': Ex-All Black and broadcaster clash over whether NZR has 'the backbone or the stomach' to help Moana Pasifika succeed

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