Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: All Blacks no show spoils Fiji's birthday

Carlos Spencer. Photo / Getty Images
Carlos Spencer. Photo / Getty Images

They asked to play the All Blacks. They've been given a stitched-up side badged as the 'Classic All Blacks' - and Fiji rugby's 100th birthday party next month is shaping as another episode of Pacific neglect.

The Fijian Rugby Union wrote to the New Zealand Rugby Union and other leading nations in August 2012 seeking agreement for a test in Suva to fittingly mark such an important anniversary.

Their offer was rejected, the NZRU citing the All Blacks, already full test schedule.

The NZRU's stance has to be challenged, as their argument doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

The All Blacks do indeed have a full test programme for 2013, with13 games scheduled. This, however, doesn't satisfy the more pertinent question of why the NZRU didn't lock in a test with Fiji three years ago when the June scheduling was being revamped.

Fiji received similar responses from the other nations they contacted and will now play a Classic All Blacks side featuring a handful of relatively recent test players such as Chris Masoe, Jerome Kaino, Joe Rokocoko and Sitiveni Sivivatu, as well as veterans Carlos Spencer and Justin Marshall.

A collection of former big names, most of whom are well past their best, is not the glamour fixture Fiji wanted.

The growing concern for rugby observers is that the Pacific Islands have become nothing more than a rich source of individual talent for leading nations to pillage. The British Lions have picked three players with strong Pacific Island heritage, while France have named Fijian-born Noa Nakaitaci in their squad to tour New Zealand

NZRU general manager of strategic relationships and partnerships Nigel Cass says an alternative of sending the Maori All Blacks was proposed instead - but in November, not June, as the Fijians requested. There were issues, due to the needs of Super Rugby franchises during the June international rugby window, around player and coach release.

Nor is the Classic All Blacks friendly in line with the wider financial commitment the IRB has made to the region.

IRB chief executive Brett Gosper, who was in New Zealand last month, said: "Fiji has been a huge contributor to world rugby, especially in terms of sevens and drawing attention to the Olympic movement.

"We spend a lot of time and money developing the game and administrative frameworks in those countries [Pacific Islands]. In the last four years, the IRB has spent £16 million ($30.1m) in general high performance [in the Islands] and also developing competitions."

In May 2010, the IRB agreed to inject greater meaning into the June window. As part of those discussions, they looked at ways to give Tier Two nations greater exposure to the best sides. At that stage, the June window was effectively a blank canvas.

It's inconceivable that the NZRU and other leading nations weren't aware then that Fiji would be celebrating a centenary in 2013.

It is also an unconvincingresponse for the NZRU to say it's not up to them to proactively seek fixtures on Fiji's behalf.

The NZRU, after all, were supremely proactive in 2003 in making inquiries about whether superstar Fiji wing Rupeni Caucaunibuca would be interested in making himself eligible for the All Blacks, as they were again in the case of Sivivatu.

The NZRU also managed to organise a test at short notice against Fiji in 2011 when it suited the All Blacks' World Cup preparation needs and also one against Samoa on similarly short notice when there was a four-week gap in the Tri Nations calendar.

Yet for the June window in 2012, the NZRU agreed to a three-test series against Ireland, then this year's series against France and a similar one in 2014 against England.

The All Blacks' refusal to play a test in the Islands has long been viewed as a source of contention, given the number of players with Polynesian and Melanesian ancestry who have made such telling contributions to the game in New Zealand.

Fiji, Tonga and Samoa are determined to host the All Blacks but previous attempts have been rebuffed.

A host of reasons ranging from a lack of infrastructure in the Islands, cost, fear of injury on substandard pitches and too many other commitments have all been used by the NZRU to justify their position.

"Making the economics work, as much as anything, is the biggest challenge to the All Blacks [playing a test in the Islands]," says Cass.

The best offer the NZRU has previously made has been to host games here and donate the gate receipts, after costs, to the visiting union.

- Herald on Sunday

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