Ever since the controversial proposed plans for a World League tournament were leaked to the public earlier this week, the exclusions of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga have left players, fans, pundits and administrators puzzled and confused.
As three of the biggest contributors to the game of rugby have been left in the cold by World Rugby executives in favour of the more financially prosperous nations of Japan and the USA, the chorus of disapproval for the World League grows louder.
Support for the Pacific nations have come from all corners of the globe in the wake of the revelations made by the New Zealand Herald, which reported that the three Pacific Island nations are set to be ignored from an annual 12-team international competition, with no chance of inclusion for the next 10 to 12 years.
Their exclusion doesn’t just mean that they will miss the opportunity to play regularly against tier one nations every season, but it also means these financially-embattled unions will be denied the NZ$10-14 million per year that the participating countries will be guaranteed, thanks to the support of an unknown broadcaster which has tabled an offer for the broadcasting rights.
The ensuing outrage has led to calls for Fiji, Samoa and Tonga to boycott this year’s World Cup in Japan, which has garnered serious consideration from leading Pasifika figures, including Pacific Rugby Players Welfare boss Daniel Leo.
While no official comment has yet been made from World Rugby explaining their decision to refrain from including three of the most exciting and naturally talented sides on the planet from their World League plans, their reasoning is obvious.
With a combined population of just 1.2 million between the three countries, the consumer market just isn’t there compared to the vast audience potential in Japan (population: 126.8 million) and the USA (325.7 million).
A broader television audience and more potential to fill bigger stadiums equals larger revenue, and with that, the Pacific nations, who have provided us with a raft of international upsets and a multitude of legendary players, are out.
Fiji can feel especially hard done by.
While Samoa and Tonga have significantly contributed to the sport and proved their ability on the world stage – Samoa defeated Wales at the 1991 and 1999 World Cups, and Tonga followed by overcoming France in 2011 – both countries have struggled in recent seasons due to corruption allegations and severe financial insecurities within their national unions.
Fiji, however, have continued to go from strength-to-strength over the past few years under the guidance of head coach John McKee.
A gradual climb up the world rankings following a string of positive results against tier one sides – including a landmark 21-14 win over France in Paris last year – has seen them settle in ninth place, higher than that of Argentina (10th), Japan (11th), the USA (13th) and Italy (15th), all of whom are included in the World League plans.
Despite this, they join Samoa and Tonga on the scrapheap with no prospect of gaining entry alongside rugby’s elite for at least the next decade.
The obvious alternative is to provide a promotion-relegation mechanism to allow these sides a chance to compete with the world’s best, but World Rugby’s plans leaked to the public shows no evidence of that being implemented.
If there is no chance of each individual nation winning a spot in the World League, whether it be as one of the 12 teams in a ring-fenced tournament or as one of the challengers in a promotion-relegation battle, then it begs the question if a combined bid to join the competition as a Pacific Islanders outfit could sway World Rugby’s stance on the matter.
It’s been 11 years since the Pacific Islanders last fielded a team, with Samoa withdrawing its allegiance with Tonga and Fiji after three tours in four years due to a lack of financial gain that the tours were intended for.
They only managed three wins from 11 outings (almost all were against full-strength tier one nations), but the Pacific Islanders fielded formidable sides that produced far more interest than the individual countries of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga were able to muster on their own.
Their inaugural tour of New Zealand and Australia in 2004 was particularly successful, pushing the All Blacks, Wallabies and Springboks to the limit in consecutive weeks, while successfully accounting for the Waratahs and a Queensland XV.
The competitiveness against three of the world’s best sides shown by the Pacific Islanders at the first time of asking illustrated their immense potential to wreak havoc globally if they had played on a regular basis.
That statement still holds true presently, as a modern day Pacific Islanders side could call upon some of the most exciting athletes the game has to offer.
Just picture a team that can combine the services of Fiji’s Leone Nakarawa, Semi Radradra and Josua Tuisova with Samoa’s Tim Nanai-Williams and Alapati Leiua, as well as Tonga’s Ben Tameifuna and Sonatane Takulua.
Their ability to compete would be just as good as any of the other 11 teams within the World League set-up, yet the passion and flair on offer in their gameplay would likely be unparalleled.
That aspect of entertainment while providing a stern test for the likes of New Zealand, England and Ireland would make the Pacific Islanders a side most rugby fans would pay to see, whether it be in the form of a match ticket or on subscription-based television.
An overwhelming demand from money-paying fans to watch such a promising, exciting outfit would make it difficult for any broadcaster to ignore.
The threat posed by the Pacific Islanders for top-tier international sides would only grow stronger with the financial benefits afforded to them upon their inclusion in the World League.
NZ$10-14 million shared between Fiji, Samoa and Tonga is exponentially more than what they currently yield, and for a trio of countries that have a tendency of upsetting teams like France, Scotland, Wales and Australia off a shadow of a shoestring budget, the potential that lies for a wealthy syndicate of Pacific nations is immeasurable.
There are obviously other pressing concerns at the forefront of this World League proposal that needs ironing out – most notably player welfare issues and the structure of the competition – but if this tournament is to get going in any way, shape or form, then the concept of reinstating the Pacific Islanders needs to be considered if the individual Pacific nations are going to be continually left out.
Potential Pacific Islanders World League team:
1. Campese Ma’afu (Fiji), 2. Motu Matu’u (Samoa), 3. Ben Tameifuna (Tonga), 4. Steve Mafi (Tonga), 5. Leone Nakarawa (Fiji), 6. Dominoko Waqaniburotu (Fiji), 7. Jack Lam (Samoa), 8. Viliame Mata (Fiji), 9. Sonatane Takulua (Tonga), 10. Tusi Pisi (Samoa), 11. Josua Tuisova (Fiji), 12. Siale Piutau (Tonga), 13. Semi Radradra (Fiji), 14. Alapati Leiua (Samoa), 15. Tim Nanai-Williams (Samoa)
Bench: 16. Manu Leiataua (Samoa), 17. Logovi’i Mulipola (Samoa), 18. Ma’afu Fia (Tonga), 19. Tevita Cabubati (Fiji), 20. TJ Ioane (Samoa), 21. Frank Lomani (Fiji), 22. Ben Volavola (Fiji), 23. Vereniki Goneva (Fiji)
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