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'That is not something NZR can handle': Kanaloa Pasifika boss hits out after missing out on Super Rugby spot

By Sam Smith
(Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

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Kanaloa Pasifika chief executive Tracey Atiga has hit out at New Zealand Rugby [NZR] over her franchise’s failed bid to enter next year’s new Super Rugby competition.

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Expansion franchises Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua were last month granted conditional entry into the new-look competition that will also feature the 10 Super Rugby franchises from New Zealand and Australia.

The induction of both teams was widely celebrated as significant boost for rugby in the Pacific Islands, but Atiga isn’t happy with the way in which her franchise missed out on a place in the competition to Moana Pasifika.

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Atiga alleges Kanaloa Pasifika were told by NZR that the only way they would be allowed entry into the new Super Rugby competition was if they merged with Moana Pasifika.

Moana Pasifika has been backed by Sir Michael Jones and Sir Bryan Williams, both of whom were NZR board members at the time of the franchise’s induction into Super Rugby, as well as New Zealand Rugby Players’ Association [NZRPA] boss Rob Nichol.

Kanaloa Pasifika last year issued a formal complaint with NZR as Atiga claimed the involvement of two NZR employees in Moana Pasifika’s inclusion in Super Rugby was a conflict of interest.

At the time, she added that Kanaloa Pasifika, unlike Moana Pasifika, submitted a full application and met all the conditions of the bidding process, but were ultimately declined a place in the competition.

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Speaking to ABC‘s Pacific Beat earlier this week, Atiga claimed Kanaloa Pasifika missed out on a place in Super Rugby because she believed NZR couldn’t “handle” the prospect of an independent Pacific-based franchise.

“New Zealand Rugby tried very hard for two months to pressure Kanaloa to merge with Moana Pasifika,” Atiga said.

“We said absolutely not. We’re a standalone entity, we have nothing to do with New Zealand Rugby, Rugby Australia or World Rugby, we can manage our own investors, we can manage our own investment, we can manage our own players.

“New Zealand Rugby didn’t want a bar of that, and the reason why it would be a lose-lose for New Zealand Rugby is because if we’d been given a licence, then those players would be completely independent of New Zealand Rugby and Rugby Australia.

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“That is not something New Zealand Rugby can handle.”

Moana Pasifika have come under criticism in recent weeks with Pacific rugby leaders, with Pacific Rugby Welfare boss Daniel Leo citing concerns that the franchise could become “NZ’s 6th Super team”.

Worries over whether the new side is being formed to serve NZR’s best interests rather than help develop the Samoan and Tongan national sides have been accentuated by the appointments of former NZR and NZRPA employees in various positions at Moana Pasifka.

One of those former employees is ex-All Blacks halfback Kevin Senio, who left his role as NZRPA player services manager to become Moana Pasifika’s director of rugby.

Senio told Sky Sport‘s The Breakdown last month that 80 percent of Moana Pasifika’s 38-man playing squad will need to be capped or eligible to play for any of the Pacific Island nations at test level.

That would leave room for around eight players who are ineligible to play for the likes of Samoa and Tonga to be contracted by Moana Pasifika.

Senio clarified to ABC that those eight ineligible players are likely to be overseas-based Pasifika players who have been capped by other countries and can add experience to the playing group.

However, Atiga claimed Kanaloa Pasifika would have fielded a team comprised entirely of players from Pacific Island nations.

“The truth is, Kanaloa, we came through with 100 percent players from Pacific Island nations and it was always our pledge that we would do that,” she told ABC.

“It was actually New Zealand Rugby that turned us away and said they wouldn’t grant us a licence with 100 percent Pacific Island nations players.

“What you’ve got here is a group that’s quite happy to provide that 20 percent to New Zealand Rugby for the picking.”

Atiga also took aim at the appointment of Senio as Moana Pasifika’s director of rugby despite his lack of experience in such a role.

“I”l tell you right now, when you’ve got someone like Kevin Senio, who was a staff member of the New Zealand Rugby Players’ Association, stepping straight into a role as general manager with no background or history as a general manager of any franchise in the past, you’ve got real concerns.”

Despite her issues surrounding the involvement of Moana Pasifika, Atiga had no reservations about the inclusion of the Fijian Drua in Super Rugby.

The Drua competed in the now-defunct National Rugby Championship in Australia between 2017 and 2019, winning the competition in 2018.

The side was operated by the Fijian Rugby Union, based out of Fiji and was made up entirely of Fijian players, all of which will be no different when they play in Super Rugby from next year onwards.

Atiga said Kanaloa Pasifika has subsequently offered its investor group to the Drua to help support the franchise as it races against time to prove it is a financially viable outfit to compete in Super Rugby.

“We’ve actually offered our investor group forward to the Drua, the reason being it is a standalone entity, much similar to what Kanaloa had proposed.

“The Drua are looking for private investors to stand up their organisation. I appreciate they’re having a really tough time, and at the end of the day, if it comes down to money, we’re here for them.

“The only issue I think we’re going to have is if Fiji are not able to extend a reach to Tonga and Samoa and the other Pacific Island nations, but, as far as I’m concerned, it’s set-up the right way – separate and independent.”

A deadline of June 30 has been set for both the Drua and Moana Pasifika to show they can generate a minimum of $10m per annum to secure a final sign-off to compete Super Rugby.

For the time being, Atiga said Kanaloa Pasifika will be waiting in the wings should either the Drua or Moana Pasifika fail to meet the requirements of their conditional entry.

“We’ve already been delayed a whole year, but come 30th June, if Moana Pasifika and the Drua have not met the conditions that New Zealand Rugby have put in front of them, I guarantee New Zealand Rugby are going to contact us because the need investors and they need a group that can actually stand up a team,” she said.

“They knew right from the beginning that we were that group.”

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'That is not something NZR can handle': Kanaloa Pasifika boss hits out after missing out on Super Rugby spot

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