Helping the Islands Nations Succeed in Rugby

About a month ago the All Blacks played a game in Samoa to great fanfare. As the noise died down it became clear that this was a one-off game not the start of teams travelling to the islands. Here are my ideas on how the rugby world can and should help the Pacific Island teams.

In the aftermath of that historic game there were plenty of commentators saying how the islands should be helped. It is rather condescending how we from the tier 1 nations are saying how the islanders should be helped. I have reached out to the rugby unions of Samoa, Fiji and Tonga to ask how they would liked to be helped. Perhaps understandably with the Pacific Nations Cup being on and me being an armature blogger I didn’t get any response. So whilst this might be condescending it’s also good to keep the topic in the publics conciseness. If I do get a response I will publish it.

It appears to me the problem is split into two main parts. Access to players and money.

Starting with access to players, again I see that there are two parts to this. First is the clubs offering contracts that either ban or stop payments of players turning out for their countries. Maybe the first occurrence of that happening to a tier 1 player is Strettle who opted out of this Rugby World Cup. For the Island nations this has been going on for years and let’s be honest Strettle was always going to be cut before the World Cup. World Rugby needs to bring in legislation that makes contracts that ban or punish a player for playing for his country illegal and all player contracts have to be submitted to a central body that can review them.

The second access issue is about players getting capped by other nations and then not being available. This is becoming an increasingly big issue as some overseas clubs setup scouting camps in the pacific with the stated intention of bringing talent back to their academies mainly in Europe. Once a player has been capped at senior international level or a countries designated second team they can not play for another country. We don’t want to see players switching back and forth between countries but I think there needs to be some latitude provided to the Island teams. Personally I think players should either be allowed to transfer once from a tire 1 country to an Island country or not be locked to a country until they have a set number of caps something like 10. There is already noise that World Rugby will be reviewing the eligibility rules and with the current voting rights the tier 1 nations aren’t going to make it more difficult for them to get players. So it has to be via the relaxing of players moving the other way.

The second side of it is money and the arguments that it’s not commercially viable for tier 1 teams to tour the Islands. Again I think that there are two parts to this. I know that many commentators have said the World Rugby should pay for traveling teams expenses. Personally I don’t think handouts are a long-term solution and a better move is to increase the commercial viability of tours than to subsidies them. First up there needs to be more work from World Rugby on growing the global market for games involving the Island sides. For example whilst the Fiji v Tonga game from the recent Pacific Nations Cup was shown in the weekly free for view rugby round in New Zealand. The rest of the Pacific Nations Cups games weren’t shown. Why is that? There were some great games and having at least highlights available would help grow that audience. With a larger audience the local unions will be able to get more TV rights money for hosting teams.

The other side of it is home games, below is a table of the number of international games by country, home and away in 2014:

Country Home Away Total
New Zealand 6 8 14
South Africa 7 7 14
Ireland 6 4 10
England 6 6 12
Australia 7 8 15
Wales 7 4 11
France 6 5 11
Argentina 6 8 14
Samoa 2 5 7
Fiji 4 3 7
Scotland 5 7 12
Tonga 0 5 5
Italy 5 6 11

The Islands clearly play less games but also play less home games. Those 4 games for Fiji were Italy, Samoa, Tonga and the Cook Islands. Samoa got Italy and Tonga and the real travesty is Tonga who have not hosted a home game since 2009! It’s not wonder that the Samoa rugby union posted a loss recently from the All Blacks game. They had to reduce the capacity of the ground at late notice, which goes to show that they have not been able to invest in infrastructure. Also if they don’t have regular games they can’t build up the commercial relationships that would make these games viable. These aren’t issues that will be fixed over night but need a long-term commitment so that the unions can invest in infrastructure and build those relationships. My proposal is that the All Blacks, Wallabies and New Zealand Maori play a game against the Islands as a warmup to the Rugby Championship. So each country would get at least 1 top game a year and the three sides would rotate which country they visited. This would need some flexibility from the european clubs as these games would fall outside the normal international windows. A lot of people have said that the european teams that visit Australia and New Zealand during the June international window should play a game in the islands. This would have to be fitted around the Pacific Nations Cup and I can see how a mid-week game would work as it’s not too long a flight. Which ever option is gone with, the important thing is guaranteed games over a long period.

So in summary I think the below are the steps the rugby world should be taking in helping the Pacific Island national teams:

  • Legislation so all club contracts release players for international windows
  • Relaxation of the eligibility rules for non-tier 1 countries
  • More promotion/coverage of games to grow the global audience of these teams
  • Guarantee of home games to allow for infrastructure investment and commercial relationships

Let me know your thoughts, you can leave comments below or tweet me at @DrivingMaul.

If you would like to know how World Rugby funds the Tier 2 nations, read my interview with the World Rugby General Manger of Asia and Oceania.

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6 thoughts on “Helping the Islands Nations Succeed in Rugby

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  1. I think that the Tongans’ national stadium has been deemed unfit to host international games, and they have no money to fix it which explains why they haven’t hosted in so long.

    This is a problem for all tier 2 & lower-ranked nations, not just the pacific islands. However, I’m absolutely certain that the answer is not to allow players to switch allegiance: while that might make mid-level players more willing to play games for lesser national sides, it would encourage the top level players to switch to the better nations once they’d “proven” themselves at national level for a lesser country.

    If anything, the eligibility rules need tightening up, not relaxing: at the moment it’s much too easy for 2nd-rate Saffas/Kiwis to ply their trade in e.g. Scotland for a couple of years before turning out for the national side, which makes a mockery of the whole concept of national teams. Tightening the rules on eligibility would make it harder for islanders to be eligible for Australia/New Zealand, thus forcing them to commit to their home islands.

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    1. I didn’t realise that Tonga’s national stadium was in such a state.
      Tier 1 nations who hold the voting power in World Rugby won’t vote to tighten the eligibility. So I feel there should be different rules for the tier 2 or Pacific Island teams. There is this image that NZ takes lots of players from the islands but the biggest Pacific city is Auckland. I heard a quote that 13 players in the Samoa squad against NZ were born in NZ. There’s been about 16 Samoans play for the All Blacks so need to be careful about the rules.

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