Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks are warming to Island tests

The All Blacks are coming under growing pressure to play a test in Samoa or Tonga and, as Gregor Paul writes, it might be coming closer to reality.

The All Blacks have not taken on an Island nation since playing Tonga in the opening match of the 2011 World Cup. Photo / Dean Purcell
The All Blacks have not taken on an Island nation since playing Tonga in the opening match of the 2011 World Cup. Photo / Dean Purcell

The New Zealand Rugby Union are probably wondering how it is they have been cast as the bad guys of the Pacific.

Since the 1930s, 37 New Zealand teams have played in the Islands. The ITM Cup has no restrictions on the number of non-eligible New Zealanders who can be contracted and Super Rugby criteria is also fairly forgiving, as no Samoan, Tongan or Fijian player has been denied the opportunity to take up a place.

The 2011 World Cup was also marketed as the Pacific's as much as it was New Zealand's and the NZRU have been the leading advocate to change eligibility laws to allow players from a Tier One nation to resume playing for a Tier Two nation after a stand-down period.

"We have been the strongest advocate around the IRB table for all things that would make a material difference to rugby in the Islands," says NZRU chief executive Steve Tew. "Twice we have taken an eligibility proposal which we think we would have got over the line but for the fact our Australian friends abstained from voting."

That's Australia, who only recently allowed non-Wallaby-eligible players into their professional game and, even then, most would argue the intention has been to help themselves to the best of the Pacific rather than to foster the game in the Islands.

That's Australia, whose 23-man squad to play France last night had as much Pacific influence as the All Blacks.

But, and Tew knows this, the NZRU won't stop being the bad guys until the All Blacks get on a plane and play a test somewhere in the Islands.

It's a bit like the old joke about 'John's frustrations at not being known in the village as 'the boat builder' despite making thousands ... just because he got caught in flagrante with one sheep'.

"It's an odd situation that the All Blacks have not played a test in either Samoa or Tonga," says Tew.

This is the stick with which the NZRU will continue to be beaten regardless of how much they do elsewhere to promote and develop the game in the wider Pacific region.

It hasn't helped that some of their rationale for not doing it has appeared to be loose. In fact, it has been worse than that. It has appeared they have contradicted their argument, saying there is no available window to play in the Islands yet they managed to squeeze in an extra test against Japan last year and will play the US in Chicago in November.

That has paved the way for accusations the All Blacks are being told what to do by their major sponsor, AIG, who have a significant presence in both Japan and the US.

Of all the misinformation that has been peddled in recent weeks around why the All Blacks haven't played in the Islands, this point is the one that Tew contests the most.

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"Are we being ordered where to play by AIG? Absolutely not," he says. "There is no doubt that playing in the USA will help us commercially and it will help [our relationship] with AIG and we have never denied that."

Last November, the All Blacks looked at the possibility of playing in Fiji, who were celebrating their centenary.

There were two significant issues that prevented it happening. The first was the All Blacks would have had to travel from Auckland to Suva, back to Auckland and then on to Paris where they would have arrived midweek for a test against a side who almost beat them.

"If we played in Apia in the first week of November this year, and then turned up at Heathrow on the following Tuesday to play England ... I don't think that would be doing the right thing for our athletes or the All Blacks," says Tew.

The second problem was Fiji gaining access to their players outside of the official release window. That wasn't an issue in Tokyo as nearly all of the Japanese squad play domestically and the US have gained or are close to agreement on gaining release for the few players they have based offshore.

The majority of Fijian, Samoan and Tongan players are, however, based in Europe and gaining releases would be next to impossible.

"Any game would have to be meaningful for both parties," says Tew, "and the All Blacks played Samoa in 2008 when they didn't have their professionals and we won by more than 100 points."

Playing in the official window is the only way, but the IRB schedule is decided years in advance. Does that mean this issue is destined to go unresolved? Will the NZRU forever be the bad guys of the Pacific?

Tew says he's been conscious in his long tenure that a test in the Islands is something he'd like to deliver. Philosophically, he's in favour and will work with All Black management to see if it can happen.

Next year might be the best opportunity - maybe the only opportunity until the next World Cup in 2019.

Playing schedules in World Cup years have more gaps. There are no June tests and the Rugby Championship is truncated. The All Blacks need at least one more next year as part of their preparations.

A game in the Islands is a possibility but there are considerations against it. Will a test in Apia, for example, be the right preparation for a World Cup in England? What if Dan Carter and Richie McCaw are crocked playing on a rock-hard surface against a ferociously physical Samoan side and miss the World Cup? Will those who clambered for the test accept the casualties or about-face and bemoan that the NZRU agreed to the game in the first place?

"We haven't dismissed it [playing in the Islands]," says Tew. "We are looking at ways to see if we can make it work. Probably there is no perfect scenario so any test might have to have an element of compromise."

- Herald on Sunday

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