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Time to expand Rugby Championship

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Is it time to expand The Rugby Championship to include Fiji and Japan?

The failed Nations Championship proposal was touted as a vehicle to promote various tier two nations like Fiji, Japan and USA into a rolling annual global tournament.

The promised riches to be shared would fill the coffers of Southern Hemisphere unions and World Rugby, while simultaneously taking from the pockets of the North, who would be forced to give up their own ‘revenue-generating’ windows to make it work.

The performances of Fiji and Japan at this year’s World Cup has given credibility to the idea that these two nations are ready for higher competition. It would be well-deserved based on their showings so far.

The question is how much of their own power would SANZAAR nations be willing to forgo to expand The Rugby Championship to include these two teams and make them competitively viable long-term. With the Nations Championship off the table, is there anything stopping SANZAAR expanding The Rugby Championship on their own?

Some have been quick to lay blame on the Northern Hemisphere, with no geographical proximity to the Pacific nations, for the failure of their development.

It is rich to see NZR figures decry the state of the Pacific countries when they themselves benefit from the systemic imbalance of power that funnels some of the best young Pacific players to always pick the black or green and gold jersey in order to provide for their families.

Fiji’s performance at the Rugby World Cup in 2019, pushing Australia and Wales in highly entertaining and absorbing fixtures, also wouldn’t be possible without one nation – France.

Had a player like Australian rugby league representative Semi Radradra not been locked into representing Fiji after playing Sevens for them in 2011, it is almost certain that another tier one nation would have secured his services after his NRL career with the hopes of him representing their nation.

Because he isn’t eligible for any other nation but Fiji, the highest wage he can earn in rugby union is in the Top 14 in France, or perhaps the Gallagher Premiership, where a privatised club largely free from national interests, can offer him a job which keeps him in the game.

The offers from Super Rugby clubs without the support from Rugby Australia would be far less (if at all on the table) without the carrot of becoming a Wallaby. The same applies to New Zealand.

Whether by design or coincidence, the careers of Pacific players ineligible for the All Blacks do not last long in New Zealand.

Compare the careers of Fijian-natives Sitiveni Sivivatu and Rupeni Caucaunibuca. After the 2003 World Cup, Caucaunibuca was a prized signature sought after by French clubs after just three seasons and 14 games for the Blues.

Sivivatu, arriving in New Zealand at 15-years-old, had an illustrious career in New Zealand spanning 11 seasons. Without being eligible for the All Blacks, Caucau could never earn close to what was on offer overseas. Sitivatu could.

Looking at a more recent example, had Sevu Reece represented his native Fiji, how long would it have been before he would have forced to go overseas to reach somewhere near his real market value?

It would be plausible that as a result, Radradra stays in rugby league or finds a Super League club to continue his life as a professional athlete without a Top 14 contract, robbing fans of his fantastic 2019 Rugby World Cup showing and some of Fiji’s ability to compete.

Semi Radradra could not feasibly represent Fiji and make a decent living as a professional rugby player without a private league like the Top 14. This is also the case with many of the other Fijian players.

The French domestic league isn’t perfect by any means*, but the removal of national interests by some degree from contracting gives every elite Pacific player a chance to play rugby professionally and represent their home nation that can only offer ‘pocket money’ as match fees.

*The FFR has added further restrictions recently, which is creating adverse effects towards creating French eligible players through Pacific talent exploitation. They are also known to encourage pacific players not to play internationally in order to turn out for the clubs.

This is currently both the only way to make Fiji competitive internationally and also a roadblock to Fiji reaching its full potential.

The irony of Steve Hansen’s finger-pointing and blame towards the Northern Hemisphere countries for the state of Pacific rugby is that one of them is actually enabling them to be somewhat competitive.

France is providing the bulk of the pro system for the Fiji national side, that pays the players and keeps them playing at a high level but on increasingly difficult terms. Six of the seven starting backline against Wales currently play for French clubs. The FFR is also looking to get the next generation of them wearing blue, not white in the future.

The conundrum for NZR and RA is whether they will actively go out of their way to concede power in order to strengthen Pacific unions, taking steps to end their own benefit they receive of holding systemic financial power over them.

Would the NZR pool together SAANZAR broadcast rights revenue from an expanded Rugby Championship and share with the Fiji Rugby Union, in the same way they wanted the RFU to split the Twickenham-gate earnings or pool and share Nations Championship revenue? It’s a bit different when the shoe is on the other foot and it’s coming out of your pocket and not into it.

Imagine if the Fiji Rugby Union could pay proper match payments to players that would start to even out the imbalance through a cut of say $25m to $30m of an expanded SANZAAR pie. However, if each SANZAAR participant just continued to take their home rake and only pool non-core markets, an expanded competition wouldn’t change much.

Would SAANZAR allow for and partly subsidise a Pacific-island Super Rugby franchise, to give Fijian-players a pathway through to the top side in their own backyard instead of France? This is the organisation that just cut Japan’s only Super Rugby club past-2020, making Japan’s future path to The Rugby Championship that much harder to come to fruition.

There are many structural issues at hand that need to be overcome to push tier two nations into tier one status and part of it includes tier one nations abdicating and acting outside their ‘own interests’ to make it happen. It would take nations to undertake extensive work outside their bordered jurisdictions. If they don’t want to, then that’s perfectly fine, but don’t finger point at others for ‘protecting their own interests’.

It’s the Southern Hemisphere nations that probably hold the most influence over whether it does or not.

If this is what Fiji can do with basically only grants from World Rugby, imagine what could happen if they were on a more level playing field. But perhaps the thought of what they could do is too much for some to make it happen.

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Is it time to expand The Rugby Championship to include Fiji and Japan?