The $35 million plan to create a Fiji Super Rugby franchise

Fiji lock Tevita Cavubati in action during the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Fiji lock Tevita Cavubati in action during the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Photo / Brett Phibbs

A revolutionary plan is being worked on to end the player drain from the Pacific Islands by establishing a Super Rugby franchise in Fiji - and it has already secured more than $NZ35 million backing.

Details of the proposal have been revealed by London's Daily Telegraph.

It is understood that more than four global companies and two leading kit manufacturers have pledged to fund the proposal to ¬create "the best club side in world rugby" on the island.

The new team, which could be operational by 2018, would be based in a new 20,000-seat stadium ¬included in plans to develop the Port Denarau Marina in Fiji, close to the island's airport in Nadi.

Ben Ryan, the Englishman who guided Fiji to their historic first ¬ Olympic gold medal when they ¬ defeated Great Britain in the sevens final in Rio, claims the move would be a "world game changer". Some 19 per cent of professional players worldwide are Pacific Islanders or of Pacific Islands descent.

"I believe the impact of this plan would see Fiji win the World Cup one day," said Ryan, who is spearheading the initiative. "We have shown in sevens what we can do. And if you just look at the impact the Fiji players are having on the tier one countries, they are their star players in New Zealand, Australia, England and France.

"That generation has gone but the future players are there and we have to make sure they stay on the island and they get the right ¬resource, the right coaching and the fundamentals around it, like we did with the sevens, so there is no reason why we can't dominate.

"It is not pie in the sky. Pick a world XV from the players that are playing outside Fiji and Samoa in the other international teams and you would get a team that is there or thereabouts. We have got some of the biggest companies in the world backing this. They have ties with the Pacific Islands. I have had conversations and we have got money on the table to be able to pay for all of this. We will have more money behind the team than any other Super Rugby franchise.

"We could make them the best club side in the world. Imagine the talent that we have got in France? They would all be on the first flight back."

The plan has yet to be endorsed by Super Rugby but Ryan has outlined the proposals to World Rugby. "No one has ever gone to Super Rugby and said 'we would like a franchise in the islands' and we have got more money than any other franchise in Super Rugby and we can guarantee that," he said. "Plus, we can build a new stadium that is a 10-minute drive from Nadi airport and surrounded by 20 five-star ¬hotels. Also, 10 of the Super Rugby teams would be within a four-hour flight of the stadium."

The move comes after World Rugby launched a working group to review the residency laws for international rugby, which ¬allow players who have yet to make an international appearance to play for a country after having lived there for three years. That has led to Fiji, Tonga and ¬Samoa haemorrhaging talent since the game turned professional in 1995.

The current regulations have also led to the controversial practice employed by countries including Scotland and Ireland of signing "project players" to recruit talent from overseas who will qualify ¬after three years.

"That generation has gone but the future players are there and we have to make sure they stay on the island and they get the right ¬resource, the right coaching and the fundamentals around it, like we did with the sevens, so there is no reason why we can't dominate," said Ryan.

Ryan believes a new Super Rugby franchise in Fiji, which could lead to a second one in Tonga, would have a much greater impact on the player drain than extending the residency qualifications from three to five years, which is under consideration.

"Currently, if you are a young ¬Fijian who wants to play rugby professionally as a career, you can't stay in Fiji," he said. "There are 165 ¬Fijians playing in France alone. It is ridiculous. World Rugby are looking to change the residency law from three to five years, but I don't think that will work because players will just go younger. For me, it comes back to giving us an opportunity on the island with a franchise. Super Rugby could own a part of it and it would keep everyone on the island and we could build academies, which would generate a pathway for players and coaches.

"Ever since I went to the island, I have been thinking about how we get Fiji, Tonga and Samoa to be consistent World Cup quarter-finalists and knocking on the doors of the semi-finals. The number one thing is to have a Super Rugby franchise. It is the simplest way of doing it. It sends the strongest message and would reap the quickest results."

PI-born players (those who represented other countries at the weekend):

Fiji
•Virimi Vakatawa (France)
•Nathan Hughes (England)
•Waisake Naholo (New Zealand)
•Henry Speight (Australia)
•Tevita Kuridrani (Australia)

Tonga
•Taulupe Faletau (Wales)*
•Billy Vunipola (England)*
•Mako Vunipola (England)*
•Ofa Tu'ungafasi (New Zealand)*
•Malakai Fekitoa (New Zealand)
•Tolu Latu (Australia)
•Lopeti Timani (Australia)
•Fonovai Tangimana (Romania)
*moved countries as a child

New Caledonia
•Sebastien Vahaamahina (France)

- Daily Telegraph UK

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