Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: A Super future ahead for Pacific Islanders

After many years of being ignored, a Super Rugby team from the Pacific Islands is closer to becoming a reality, writes Gregor Paul.
BNZ Crusaders players Richie Mo'unga with fans during their visit to Nasinu Gospel Primary School 30 June 2016. Photo: PAULINI RATULAILAI. picture supplied FIJI SUN.
BNZ Crusaders players Richie Mo'unga with fans during their visit to Nasinu Gospel Primary School 30 June 2016. Photo: PAULINI RATULAILAI. picture supplied FIJI SUN.

From being haphazard, politically driven and motivated by self-interest, Sanzaar stand on the cusp of a new future where they will be guided by facts and governed by strategy and clearly outlined objectives.

This is good news all round, but it has particular relevance to the Pacific Islands, the perennial ghost at Super Rugby's feast.

The Islands collectively have watched Super Rugby's progress over the past 20 years with a mixture of bitterness and bewilderment. When it all began in 1996, they had been hopeful, maybe even confident, that the invitation would roll over given they had been an integral part of the precursor Super 10 tournament.

But it never arrived because the switch to professionalism meant the rules changed. Sponsors, logistics, infrastructure and broadcast audience all had to be considered, which scuppered Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.

They could not mount a valid commercial case and have seen financially rich but rugby poor territories afforded the opportunity they hoped would be theirs. They have also, as a result of not having any Super Rugby team to call their own, seen a global exodus of their players, which has led to the national teams of England, Wales, New Zealand, France, Australia and Japan having considerable Pacific influence.

The established rugby world has treated the Islands as a treasure trove to plunder and exploit while steadfastly ignoring their attempts to sit around the negotiation table to have meaningful dialogue about inclusion.

But that's all about to change. The appointment of Andy Marinos as chief executive late last year has ushered in a new era for Sanzaar, one where they will attempt to build a cohesive long-term strategy based on all member nations buying into an agreed, communal vision.

To that end, consultancy firm Accenture has been hired to canvas a vast range of views from all the current stakeholders - players, coaches, broadcasters, media, sponsors and fans - and shortly report back with a blueprint of what Super Rugby should look like in 10 years.

The Sanzaar board will agree on that vision by November, which is expected to be comprehensively detailed on future competition structure, ideal number of teams and preferred geographic locations.

Depending on what the report suggests, change could be implemented before the end of the current broadcast deal - or it may all happen in 2021.

The Islands, having never once been taken seriously so far, will understandably be wary that, once again, Sanzaar will overlook their case and instead be lured by the dollars available elsewhere.

But in Marinos, the former Welsh international, they have found a champion of the big picture and someone whose background means he'll be swayed as much by the rugby argument as the financial case.

The previous Sanzaar regime perhaps had their focus too firmly on the economic case potential expansion teams could make, an accusation hard to refute with the new teams this year sitting in three of the bottom four places but broadcast revenue having increased 100 per cent.

Marinos is adamant the criteria for any new teams have to be wider and more balanced, that sustainability can't be achieved by either just being cash rich or player rich.

There is little doubt, however, that those teams who are player rich stand a better chance of survival than those who aren't and it's easier to use playing success to drive commercial success than the other way round.

All of which means Marinos, unlike any of his predecessors, is sold on the idea of Pacific inclusion in an expanded format.

"The Pacific Islands have been discussed at length," he says. "We just cannot ignore that from a high performance perspective. They tick every box and, yes, very much so.

"They are part of the thinking going forward. We have got to get the Pacific Islands included into the structure. How or what it will look like, I can't say right now. But we know there is quality there.

"They are almost set up and ready to go and get in there and play."

On the tricky issue of how a Pacific Island team could be funded, Marinos hints the solution could be to split the team's home base. Accenture's feasibility research will provide clarity in time, but a sensible guess at this early stage is that a Pacific team could play in Fiji, Samoa and one other venue - possibly Auckland or somewhere in Australia.

"Where do you geographically locate them and how do you fund it?" says Marinos. "They are certainly one of the geographies, teams and group of players who will be considered because they can add value to the competition.

"Where it is geographically located, that might be the place from where you generate the revenue and sustainability. I understand that the attraction from a Pacific Island point of view will be to have them play in Fiji, Tonga and Samoa and that is not completely unrealistic. We have seen a hybrid situation come out of Japan, with some games there and Singapore to grow different markets.

"Yes, it has to be underpinned by strong commercial factors so it makes sense, but at the same time, you can't ignore or fail to appreciate they have enough quality in their high performance structure to be competitive.

"It's how you supplement that and make sure there is a continuum of quality coming through the process and what does it mean for the national teams. How do we make Tonga, Fiji and Samoa better, more competitive national teams?"

Possible new Super Rugby ventures

1 Pacific Islands

Have to surely be included in an expanded competition on the basis they have the players. Both Fiji and Samoa are capable of hosting big games and, to alleviate fears about a lack of revenue, perhaps Auckland could be a third base for a combined Pacific Islands team.

2 United States

The US has long been identified as a key market for rugby and both the All Blacks and Wallabies have recently played tests in Chicago and will do so again. It's not hard for the Australian and New Zealand sides to get to the West Coast of the US and the time difference is workable. Maybe San Francisco would be the best place to base a team.

3 Spain

Spain is in the same time zone as Africa and is a 10-hour flight away, which is not long by Super Rugby standards. The game has a reasonable foothold -- they played at the 1999 World Cup, the sevens team have qualified for the Olympics and the recent French Top 14 club final was played in Barcelona. They have a biggish economy and it's not likely Spain are going to find much traction trying to force their way into the established European competitions.

- Herald on Sunday

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