Bidwell: Moana Pasifika critical to success of rugby in region

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Opinion – I’ve not been particularly enthusiastic about Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua joining Super Rugby. It’s not the idea of it so much, more the detail.

Photo: Photosport

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Until such time as the finances and infrastructure allow each team – Moana Pasifika in particular – to be truly autonomous, then the franchises will fail. Or at least be beholden to the likes of New Zealand Rugby (NZR), who have a vested interest in five other franchises.

But so dismal was Tonga’s 102-0 loss to the All Blacks last Saturday, that Moana Pasifika is now critical to the success of rugby in this region.

The game – and by that I mean everyone associated with rugby in the South Pacific – needs there to be professional vehicles for players beyond NZR and the All Blacks.

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For rugby in this part of the world to flourish – and that includes in New Zealand – we need Tongan, Samoan and Fijian rugby players not to play for the All Blacks.

Eligibility changes wouldn’t hurt, but they won’t sustain Pasifika rugby in the long term.

Letting former All Blacks play for their nation of heritage could make teams more competitive – provided they can be released by their clubs – but they won’t really change anyone’s fortunes.

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Quinn Tupaea on debut for the All Blacks

Quinn Tupaea on debut for the All Blacks in match against Tonga on 3 July.
Photo: Photosport

Let’s take a quick look at rugby league.

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Players such as Jarome Luai and Brian To’o have been integral to the success of New South Wales in this year’s State of Origin series. Both are Australian-born, but both want to play their international rugby league for Samoa.

That doesn’t suit everyone involved in rugby league in Australia, who believe you should only be allowed to play in State of Origin football if your intention is to appear for the Kangaroos.

Others, though, recognise the changing face of the game in Australia. They realise more than 50 percent of NRL players are Pasifika and they want international rugby league to reflect that.

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Tonga are already strong, but Samoa and Fiji could be just as good. Just as importantly, Mate Ma’a Tonga have shown us that fans will follow a flourishing team.

Those with a view of the bigger picture realise Australia needs legitimate rivals if the international game is to rise again. If that means losing Kangaroo-eligible players to Pacific nations, then so be it.

Our view remains rather narrow here. We continue to stockpile rugby talent that could make Fiji, Tonga and Samoa strong, because we believe it maintains the All Blacks’ pre-eminence.

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Frankly, last Saturday’s drubbing of Tonga did nothing to enhance the All Blacks’ brand and nor will the anticipated thrashings of Fiji either.

Most of us can spot a 50-test All Black a mile off. There’s just something about the way they walk and talk and look that sets them apart from your average rugby player.

You assume NZR can spot those players too and yet they insist on throwing All Black caps around like confetti. We routinely pick blokes to play for New Zealand who are never going to appear more than 10 or 15 times, just so they’re ineligible to play for anyone else.

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Everyone accepts the circumstances that prevented Tonga from fielding a competitive team last week, but the biggest impediment remains the All Blacks.

If you want to play professional rugby in this part of the world, then you need to declare your allegiance to New Zealand or Australia. Beyond that, any number of Pasifika players now represent Japan or England or France, because of the pathways made open to them there.

We’ve reached a point with Samoan and Tongan and Fijian test rugby where we need to provide a different pathway; a pathway that helps those nations retain their elite players and select New Zealand and Australian-born ones too.

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A professional Pasifika franchise – or franchises – is critical to this. Just as allowing Blues and Hurricanes and Chiefs and Highlanders and Crusaders players to represent their nation of heritage is as well.

As with rugby league in Australia, there will be those who say it’s not in NZR’s interests to develop talent for other nations. Maybe. But you only have to look at the 102-point drubbing at Mt Smart Stadium to see why actually it is.

Rugby league has shown us that when you give a nation such as Tonga access to their best players, they will succeed. To watch them beat New Zealand, Great Britain and Australia in recent seasons has been among the great sporting thrills of my lifetime.

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Well, we can have this in rugby too. Perhaps to an even greater degree as well, given rugby’s popularity compared to league.

It’s one thing for European and Japanese clubs to make it difficult for Pasifika players to appear in test rugby, but it’s quite another for NZR to do the same. Particularly when rugby in New Zealand would benefit so greatly by having genuinely competitive clashes with our Pacific Island neighbours.

We can’t afford to wait a minute longer.

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