Fiji, Tonga, Samoa no closer to being Rugby World Cup contenders 20 years after game went pro

LONDON, 14 SEPTEMBER 2015 (AP) ----By all appearances, the Pacific Islands squads are sailing smoothly into the Rugby World Cup.

Fiji is on its best unbeaten run in this century, Tonga is enjoying its best string of results in a dozen years, and the Samoa players have peace of mind.

The way the Fijians dismantled Canada in their last warm-up match even has some believing Fiji is a threat in the toughest of the groups, featuring top-five teams Australia, England, and Wales.

“We can shock the world,” winger Nemani Nadolo says seriously.

Samoa and Tonga have similar designs. Samoa is good enough to exploit a good draw and schedule to reach the quarterfinals for the first time in 20 years. The schedule isn’t as kind for Tonga, which is yet to make a World Cup quarterfinal. For its probable decider against Argentina at Leicester on Oct. 4, Tonga has only a five-day break. The Pumas have nine days.

Fiji (9) and Tonga (11) have higher rankings than before the last World Cup - Samoa was down two to 12 — and World Rugby was happy to take credit.

“Over the last 18 months, World Rugby has worked specifically with the Pacific Islands to ensure that they arrive at the tournament in the best possible shape,” the international federation said in a pre-tournament statement.

World Rugby said that in March it funded and delivered a player development program for Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, and was in talks to implement another player development project. It also paid for the annual Pacific Nations Cup, and said it gave each Tier Two nation an average $1.3 million annually since the last World Cup to try and help them reduce the gap to the Tier One sides.

But 20 years after the game went professional, that gap remains huge: Pacific Island teams seem no closer to becoming Rugby World Cup contenders.

Despite them being a geyser of talent — there are Pacific Island-born players in five other World Cup teams — and in demand by clubs all over the world, they are still fodder for the top teams.

Money has and hasn’t helped. Pro rugby has given more Pacific Islanders than ever a life-changing chance to earn in a season what it takes years to earn at home. But it has also opened them to exploitation. Fijian players were being “preyed upon” by player agents, Rob Nichol, the International Rugby Players Association chief executive, told London’s Daily Telegraph. He and Fiji sevens coach Ben Ryan gave examples of players being abandoned without being paid or unknowingly owing money.

There needs to be a global regulation of agents, Nichol said, because what “World Rugby has in place is completely insufficient. We are allowing the sharks to eat these kids alive.”

The spread of talent to Europe, Asia, and Australasia makes it hard for the smaller countries to be competitive come test time in June and November, when players usually fly in at their own expense, and have probably less than a week to develop teamwork and combinations again, unlike at World Cups.

And even scheduling a match with Tier One nations is difficult. Countries like New Zealand, South Africa and Australia have schedules fixed years in advance, while the PI unions often only have from six months out to make arrangements. And while they go to Europe every November, and make hundreds of thousands of dollars in gate receipts for their hosts, the visits are rarely reciprocated.

Samoa successfully hosted the All Blacks for the first time in July, but has never been visited by the Wallabies, Springboks or England. Fiji hasn’t seen Australia since 1984, and England since 1991. Tonga, the birthplace of Malakai Fekitoa and Willie O, has never hosted New Zealand or Australia.

In fact, Tonga hasn’t played at its home ground for six years, since Teufaiva Stadium in Nuku’alofa became unusable. It is being upgraded for the 2019 Pacific Games, and Wales’ third visit in 2017 could mark Tonga’s return home.

Samoa likely would have accepted no home ground to the poor leadership they’ve endured for a decade. Not until last month, just before the World Cup squad left for Britain, were years of disgruntlement with the national union resolved by a collective contract that guaranteed the players basic rights which their Tier One rivals take for granted.

The contract guaranteed the likes of payments, welfare, standards at practice, and good accommodation.

There shouldn’t be a repeat of the 2011 tournament aftermath, when captain Mahonri Schwalger gave a report to the Prime Minister blaming mismanagement by team and union officials for Samoa’s failure to reach the knockout stage. At the cost of his test career, Schwalger also asked where hundreds of thousands in public donations went, prompting an independent audit which revealed $560,000 unaccounted for.

The distrust came to a head last October when the Samoa players highlighted their plight by threatening to boycott a test against England. New faces have taken control at the union, and the players are happier.

Tonga chairman Epi Taione would like to see new faces on the World Rugby council. He doubts the Pacific Islands will be able to meet the standards they seek until the voting rights on the council are fairer. All three PI sides, and their Oceania brethren, are combined into one vote on the council. Meanwhile, the likes of Canada, Argentina and Japan have one each, while foundation members such as England, New Zealand and Australia have two each.

The stacked voting has shot down changes sought by the Pacific Islands on a major bugbear, eligibility. The PI sides would love to strengthen their sides by capturing players who have been discarded, especially in New Zealand and Australia, which have big Polynesian and Melanesian populations. Foreigners can become available for a national team after three years’ residency, so a stand-down of three years, at least, seems fair for ex-internationals to return in a new jersey.

Otherwise, it seems like a waste of unused talent....PACNEWS




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