The Pacific Islands have been crying out for a Super Rugby franchise for ages and it feels as if we might finally be moving in a positive direction.
News came out on Tuesday that the New Zealand government, along with New Zealand Rugby, have conducted a feasibility study to look at the possibility of a team playing in the Islands.
You have to take baby steps on the Islands as we have heard this before, but with the South African teams looking to leave Super Rugby and align themselves with Europe, this seems to have put more emphasis on having a franchise in the Islands.
Questions will need to be asked about NZR’s involvement and what they want to gain from the move, but it is definitely a positive move forward for Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.
Any potential team is still two or three years off coming into being and that gives valuable breathing space to answer the many questions that will arise and sort out the logistical problems involved.
Who is going to run the team?
Having to answer to three different unions – potentially four if New Zealand are also involved – is a challenging task and any franchise may need to be independently owned, but with strong guidelines that they must adhere to. At the Crusaders, everything was so professional, with everyone singing from the same hymn sheet and there would need to be a similar set-up in any prospective Islands team, rather than having to answer to three separate unions and risk crossed wires.
One such guideline would be that any player representing the franchise must be eligible to represent their respective nation, whether that be Fiji, Samoa or Tonga.
There is no point going to the trouble of putting a team together if it’s not going to then help develop players for those three nations.
You would want the team to be the pathway to bring through the future stars of Fijian, Samoan and Tongan rugby and lean heavily on local players, but it would also be a desirable destination for Islanders currently playing in Europe, who have never had the opportunity of playing professionally in their home countries.
The key would be to find players who would want to be there and who could mentor the next generation of rugby talent on the Islands, whilst still offering plenty in Super Rugby and helping keep the team competitive.
These players could bring experience and help establish a culture in the first few years, before letting the younger players take the lead once the team is more established. It would be an amazing opportunity for us players in Europe and to see players like Telusa Veainu and Leone Nakarawa playing in Suva, Apia and Nuku’alofa would be great for the people there.
The team could be based in Suva for economic reasons and then take one or two home games a season to Apia and Nuku’alofa, as well as looking at venues like Auckland, Sydney and Brisbane. When you walk into South Auckland, it’s like walking into a mini Samoa or a mini Tonga and rugby fans there would be eager to see the franchise.
You could even take games to the US, to areas where there is a strong Polynesian or Melanesian culture, such as Hawaii, San Francisco and Seattle.
By taking games to those kinds of destinations, hopefully ticket prices could be subsidised on the Islands, with unaffordable prices the biggest challenge that fans have faced when standalone Super Rugby matches have been played on the Islands in recent seasons.
There will be teething troubles and the franchise wouldn’t enter Super Rugby as an established group, like the Rebels or Jaguares did when they joined, but if you can get passed that, the benefits would be immense, particularly for the three nations at international level.
In Fiji, kids learn not to get tackled at all costs, whilst in Samoa they grow up learning to take the heads off their opponents. We all play differently as nations and this would be an opportunity to learn from one another and become better teams as a result.
The skill and speed of Fijian rugby meeting with the power and strength of Samoan and Tongan would be an exciting mix and help create appeal for investment and global interest.
Finding the right coach would be difficult, too, but not an impossible challenge.
A Wayne Smith or Robbie Deans would be amazing, guys who have been there and done it, or even someone like Stuart Lancaster, who has done great things with Leinster. If you can find the right person who understands rugby in that part of the world, then the franchise could also become a pathway for young Islander coaches.
A combined Fiji/Samoa/Tonga team is set for Super rugby with both NZ Rugby and the NZ Govt working on a plan. https://t.co/0HdpVyLgev
— Patrick Gower (@patrickgowernz) May 14, 2018
Make it happen I’ll put my hands up.. ??? https://t.co/wmEU7wr9Er
— nemzy (@nemani_nadolo) May 14, 2018
Any Islander player thinking about retirement would jump at the chance to help coach the franchise. They would bring knowledge from the areas of the world they have played in and that would help the franchise grow on the field.
We need to keep taking baby steps, but it is exciting that this is being looked into as a possibility and that SANZAAR will be debating it in the coming weeks and months.
Mixing the nations and focusing on getting a team into Super Rugby is the right move. Then, ensuring it is competitive with the other teams in the competition would be the priority, but who says this cannot be a gateway to a time when all three nations have their own franchises in Super Rugby?
The Islands have given so much to rugby all around the world and it is long overdue that they get something back.
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