The one thing that could undermine New Zealand's 'festival' of rugby with the Pacific Islands
The recently confirmed All Blacks tests against Tonga and Fiji this July are sure to get fans of both Pasifika and New Zealand rugby alike excited. The three matches, kicking off with an historic clash against the ‘Ikale Tahi at Mount Smart Stadium on 3 July and followed by a double-header against the Flying Fijians on 10 and 17 July, are hoped to be a ‘festival’ of rugby, showcasing the talents of some of the world’s best.
It is perhaps surprising, given the distinct presence of the Pacific Island nations within New Zealand rugby and the rich social and cultural interactions between the Pasifika nations and Aotearoa itself, that leading up to this year’s tests, the All Blacks have played only six matches against Tonga and nine against Fiji.
Whilst Tonga’s last outing against the All Blacks came recently in 2019 with a 90-point loss, New Zealand haven’t faced the cibi in nearly ten years, at Carisbrook’s swansong in 2011 – a 60-14 loss for Fiji.
For Tonga and Fiji, teams who were heavily impacted in their rugby schedule last year by the COVID-19 pandemic, the All Blacks present a decidedly challenging return to the field. But the prospect of a test against the best, in front of what should hopefully be sold-out stadia, should by no means be viewed as a negative. After all, Los Pumas didn’t let a lack of game time get in the way of their moment of triumph in 2020.
Of course for Tonga, the All Blacks pose the best possible ‘warm-up’ game they could hope for, before their World Cup 2023 Qualifying first-leg match against Samoa on 17 July. Certainly, despite their tough loss pre-World Cup in 2019, the Tongans went on to post some admirable performances in the competition, beating the United States and running France seriously close.
From an All Blacks perspective, the confirmed schedule is also an exciting time for players with their hopes set on international participation in 2021. Indeed, after weeks of speculation and tough performances in Super Rugby Aotearoa and now Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, Ian Foster’s first squad of the year will no doubt have everybody talking about the near misses and snubs.
For ex-All Black and Blues hooker James Parsons, speaking on this week’s episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod, the upcoming tests are an exciting chance to see talents potentially both new and old in the national colors.
“There are some opportunities maybe that guys performing really well during Super Rugby, [get an] opportunity in the black jersey,” said Parsons, who went on to comment on the importance of the July tests in “building towards the Rugby Championship.”
Parsons isn’t wrong. Back in 2019 it was George Bridge who assured his starting position on the left wing for the All Blacks for their World Cup campaign with a four-try performance against the ‘Ikale Tahi. There is no doubt then, that there remain places up for grabs in the All Blacks Rugby Championship squad and that these July tests are a significant time for a player to make their mark.
The prospect of international rugby was also cause for excitement for Crusaders halfback Bryn Hall. Further, the significance of hosting Tonga at Mt Smart Stadium, home of the New Zealand Warriors, was not lost on Hall.
“If you just look at the pictures in the Rugby League World Cup,” said Hall. “It would be pretty great if they could have a strong side to play the All Blacks in that kind of fixture, especially at that ground [with] how much support they have in Auckland.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 16, 2021
Few will forget that tournament in 2017, when Mate Ma’a Tonga, led jointly by the indomitable Jason Taumalolo, made their presence known in a big way, beating the Kiwis in Hamilton, winning their pool and narrowly missing out on a place in the final in front of a Red Sea of 30,000 fans at Mt Smart.
Despite these hopes, the issues of a potentially understrength Fijian or Tongan side due to club commitments was something that might unfortunately have to be considered.
“It’s whether they can get released from their clubs,” commented Hall. “I hope so, because it’s a great opportunity for the Pacific Island nations. We don’t usually play too many test matches, especially in a row, against them and let alone in the same year, so for those boys that play in the Northern Hemisphere, or wherever they are affiliated, it’ll be great for them to come down and play in New Zealand because it’s a great opportunity for a lot of players.”
Fijian rugby and carving up in the Northern Hemisphere have been synonymous for quite some time now. Famous names like Leone Nakarawa, Semi Radradra and Josua Tuisova have all gone on in the last decade to become galacticos at the top clubs across Europe wowing supporters with their outrageous talents. And that’s without mentioning the likes of Virimi Vakatawa and Alivereti Raka who have declared their national allegiance elsewhere.
In contrast to their Pacific neighbors, the Flying Fijians have at least played a game since the World Cup two years ago, a single barnstorming performance against Georgia in last year’s Autumn Nations Cup, after coronavirus cancelled their games against France, Italy and Scotland. The Fijians were uncontainable that day, Nemani Nadolo casually marking his return to the national side with a hattrick. If, as Parsons alluded to, the Fijians are able to flex their full range of talents this winter and with Vern Cotter, a serial winner at club level, rugby audiences are in for a treat.
“[I’m] pretty sure it’s in the test window where they release the players, so they should be strong teams…we can be hopeful.”
Listen to the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod below:
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