Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Pacific Island rugby not helping themselves

Super Rugby would have been a lot stronger with a Pacific side rather than one from Japan but, as Gregor Paul reports, issues off the field meant this was too much of a risk.
Samoa perform their war dance. Photo / Getty
Samoa perform their war dance. Photo / Getty

With the Sunwolves and Kings ensconced at the foot of the Super Rugby table and certain to stay there for the foreseeable future, it highlights the opportunity missed in not inviting a Pacific Island side into the competition.

What Super Rugby needed this year was a new team in which people could believe - a highly physical, courageous, inspirational group of footballers to ignite the imagination and rattle a few bones.

The best candidates for that were probably Fiji, coming into the competition under a different name much like the Jaguares. Samoa could have done much the same and Super Rugby would finally have had its missing piece - a dynamic Pacific force delivering the magical, brutal rugby that is impossible not to love.

But in Sanzaar's defence, they would have been taking an unjustified risk had they granted one of the Pacific nations a Super Rugby place. While Fiji and Samoa have the players to be a genuine force and the basic infrastructure in place to host regular games at this level, there continues to be significant, justified concerns around the governance of rugby in both nations and more particularly in Tonga.

There is no faith that the administrations of the Pacific Island nations will manage their finances appropriately. There is no confidence the money that flows in will be allocated to the right places and, until there is, there won't be a place at the Super Rugby table.

Fiji, Samoa and now Tonga have all had well-documented financial mismanagement issues.

In 2014, the Samoan players threatened to strike, such was their unhappiness with the regime's incompetence. They wanted answers about where $1 million of World Rugby funding had ended up because they hadn't seen any of it.

The same thing is now happening in Tonga. World Rugby have handed over millions destined to develop the game and nobody is quite sure where it has all gone.

The island nations have become their own worst enemy. They have the playing ability to be deadly but, without the structure to support a high-performance culture and all that entails, they will continue to be shut out by the established nations.

It will take time to rebuild trust. The Fijian Rugby Union, considerably more stable than they were five years ago, are believed to have made a submission to be a part of Australia's National Championship this year.

The Australian Rugby Union were eager to sign it off but couldn't be satisfied the governance in Fiji was strong enough. The door remains open to a deal being done for next year, but there are no guarantees because, as has happened in the past, change can sweep through the Islands' administrative teams and quickly erode any confidence that has been built.

The Samoan Rugby Union, too, have made big strides in the past year following a World Rugby-enforced audit which led to a major personnel cleanout and a collective contract agreement with the players. But, again, while it's apparent Samoa are heading in the right direction, it will take a sustained period of strong management to persuade Sanzaar the risks have been minimised.

The armchair fan would no doubt love to see a heavier Pacific influence in Super Rugby but they will most likely have to wait until the end of the current broadcast deal in 2020.

"We are working closely with the management of the various Pacific Island unions to help build the right environments that support their performance aspirations both on and off the field," says former Highlanders player Josh Blackie, who is now head of the Pacific Island Players' Association. "The aspiration remains for the Island sides to be playing in professional competitions, so that requires strong and stable governance."

That lack of trust is also a major stumbling block to the Island nations being able to forge themselves a better international schedule under a revamped revenue sharing model.

World Rugby have not been able to lock in June and November test fixtures beyond 2019, as the likes of New Zealand are refusing to commit until they have certainty about changes they want to see.

The current system doesn't work particularly well in that it creates an overly long season, doesn't create enough revenue and leaves the tier two nations mostly out in the cold.

The Pacific Island nations are most disadvantaged by the current system, as they are rarely allocated the opportunity to host a tier one nation and therefore have limited potential to generate revenue.

Even though Fiji and Samoa now have suitable venues to play tests and have shown themselves capable of hosting big games, there is still reluctance among the major nations to travel there. The All Blacks, who were under intense pressure to visit Samoa last year, held off agreeing to the fixture until they were satisfied there was enough transparency around where the income from the test would end up.

Those concerns have only partially abated and, as a result, it's a long shot the All Blacks will be back in the islands before 2019.

"As part of the work we have been doing on the long-term season structure, our guys have been looking at how we fill out 2017, 2018 and 2019 - or not," says New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew. "Those discussions are still being held internally and we are talking to the coaches about what their preference would be because, in the end, yes, we have to generate more money and give our team the best chance of going to Japan 2019 in the best shape."

- NZ Herald

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