Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Island players fear being left marooned

Players deciding to represent a Pacific Island nation could create issues for NZ Super Rugby sides, writes Gregor Paul.

George Moala of the Blues could play for Samoa. Photo / Getty Images
George Moala of the Blues could play for Samoa. Photo / Getty Images

Uncertainty can be a killer, as the Pacific Islands are finding. Samoa, Fiji, Tonga and the Cook Islands are on the hunt for players and are putting pressure on those eligible for the Island nations.

The World Cup is looming and the Islands are trying to cajole bigname Super Rugby players into giving up on the All Blacks and throwing their lot in with them.

That's the way it is. New Zealand is full of players with dual eligibility and they can't all be All Blacks.

Almost 20 per cent of contracted Super Rugby players are eligible for one of the Pacific Island sides. The number is higher in the ITM Cup.

But luring even those who are willing to commit is proving to be problematic amid fears that provincial and Super Rugby contracts will be jeopardised by no longer being All Black-eligible.

Super Rugby franchises are able to contract only two non-All Black eligible players, and those thresholds are going to be tested in the next year or two.

The Chiefs, as an example, already have three non-eligible All Blacks in their 32-man squad: Mo Schwalger, Kane Thompson and Asaeli Tikoirotuma.

Dispensations to go beyond two can be granted if the franchise prove to the New Zealand Rugby Union there isn't a qualified All Black-eligible player to do the job.

The NZRU have been accommodating in the past, having never turned down a player from the Pacific Islands. They have a stated goal to help foster and promote Pacific Islands rugby.

Players eligible for one of the Island nations are, in theory, able to play professionally in New Zealand on similar terms to their All Black-eligible team-mates.

The current contracting model is not like older versions, where someone such as Rupeni Caucaunibuca - arguably the best wing in the world in 2003 and 2004 and critical to the Blues - was able to earn only $75,000 a year due to his decision to commit to Fiji.

The current model enables Super Rugby franchises to directly contract players regardless of their eligibility up to the value of $185,000. Again, in theory, a dual-qualified player could commit to one of the Island nations and remain in New Zealand on good money.

But the potential volume of contracted players who could commit to an Island nation in the next 12 months is significant, to such an extent the NZRU may find themselves unable to grant dispensations the way they have in the past.

This uncertainty has left players, international coaches and franchises in limbo.

"It is a concern," says Chiefs chief executive Andrew Flexman. "We want to provide players with an element of certainty by offering two year contracts but, with the World Cup punctuating the time frame, there is a chance some players by 2016won't be All Black-eligible.

"It has been possible on a case-by-case basis in the past to satisfy criteria for dispensation but that loophole feels like it might be closing.

"I don't think anyone wants to see an exodus of that critical midtier but there is a concern some players will only want to commit for one year ahead of the World Cup and that we will see that exodus in 2016.

"We feel this [contracting situation with Pacific Island-eligible players] is a discussion worth having with the New Zealand Rugby Union."

The Chiefs have three players - Ben Tameifuna, Pauliasi Manu and Tim Nanai-Williams - coming off contract this year. They want to keep all three for at least another two seasons but it's possible that, by 2016, none of them will still be eligible for the All Blacks.

Other franchises face a similar dilemma, which is why the issue of Pacific Island player recruitment is high on the agenda for this week's get-together with the national body, who are aiming to provide clarity on a raft of contracting issues.

While the NZRU want players and franchises to have long-term clarity, they also have to be mindful of how many Super Rugby places end up taken by players who can't turn out for the All Blacks.

As much as the NZRU want to see Island nations develop, they can't risk turning Super Rugby into a French scenario where last year, on any given weekend, there were 14 foreigners starting at first five-eighths.

Neil Sorensen, the national body's head of professional rugby, says he's conscious of how the market is poised but says common sense will prevail.

"If, for example, someone such as Nanai-Williams commits to Samoa next year and that puts the Chiefs over the two-player threshold, we are not going to turn around and say they have to get rid of players. That's something we are never going to do.

"We are taking a commonsense approach on this. We have a lot of Pacific Island-eligible players here and don't want, say, 30 per cent of our contracted players not able to play for the All Blacks. But we can address the contract situation [in terms of thresholds] after the World Cup."

Too many Cooks risk ITM wrath

The Cook Islands, facing their biggest game in history next month, are struggling to persuade a handful of New Zealand-based players to join their cause. Fear of contract reprisal is the problem. Some ITM Cup players believe they will become ineligible for their provinces if they commit to the Cook Islands,who play Fiji on June 28 for a spot at next year's World Cup.

It's a massive game for the Cook Islands. The Tier Three nation is a decent outside chance to pull off a major shock.

Fiji have been beset by financial dramas - more than usual - and are seen as vulnerable.

The Cook Islands, however, have a handful of eligible players who say they want to play but won't do so until or unless they have certainty about their New Zealand provincial contracts.

"It would make a huge difference to us to have them," Cook Islands team manager Cam Kilgour said.

"There is a bit of misunderstanding and confusion out there. [International Rugby Players' Association managing director] Rob Nichol has been really supportive on this issue and the main thing to get across to players is that their contracts will be safe if they play for us."

The winner of the match in Fiji will take up a place in Pool A alongside England,Wales and Australia at the 2015World Cup.

Super Pacific player eligibility

Almost 20 per cent of New Zealand Super Rugby players are eligible for Pacific Island teams

Blues

George Moala, Samoa
Liaki Moli, Tonga
Peter Saili, Samoa
Angus Ta'avao, Samoa
Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Tonga
Patrick Tuipulotu, Samoa

Chiefs

Bundee Aki, Samoa
Pauliasi Manu, Tonga
Tim Nanai-Williams, Samoa
Augustine Pulu, Tonga
Mo Schwalger, Samoa
Ben Tameifuna, Tonga
Kane Thompson, Samoa
Asaeli Tikoirotuma, Fiji

Crusaders

Nepo Laulala, Samoa
Reynold Lee-Lo, Samoa
Nemani Nadolo, Fiji
Jordan Taufua, Samoa
Jimmy Tupou, Samoa

Highlanders

Malakai Fekitoa, Tonga
Ma'afu Fia, Tonga
TJ Ioane, Samoa
Nasi Manu, Tonga
Patrick Osborne, Fiji
Lima Sopoaga, Samoa

Hurricanes

Tim Bateman, Cook Islands
Jack Lam, Samoa
Alapati Leiua, Samoa
Faifili Levave, Samoa
Motu Matu'u, Samoa
Cardiff Vaega, Samoa

- Herald on Sunday

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