Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: Super Rugby's greatest shame

Highlanders centre Malakai Fekitoa was schooled and developed in Tonga into his mid-teens. Photo / Greg Bowker.
Highlanders centre Malakai Fekitoa was schooled and developed in Tonga into his mid-teens. Photo / Greg Bowker.

As Super Rugby twists itself in knots trying to work out how it can successfully reduce itself in size next year, the greatest shame of all is the door appears to be ever more firmly shut on the Pacific Islands.

It has long been the greatest travesty of Super Rugby that it has ignored and actively rejected any direct Pacific Island influence and feels even more so now that the Sunwolves and Jaguares are digging in for the long haul. There's also an undeniable possibility that Australian rugby is in terminal decline.

Maybe things will get better across the Tasman but that certainly won't happen quickly and the South Pacific region would be well advised to start seriously building credible Super Rugby alternatives outside of Australia.

If Samoa can be asked to come to the rescue of the All Blacks by agreeing at late notice to play a test at Eden Park on June 16, then why can't they be asked to come to the rescue of a Super Rugby competition that is more desperately in need of being saved?

The question needs to be asked how it is that a team from Japan and a team from Argentina are firmly ensconced in Super Rugby while the Islands are out in the cold. The logic defies belief on all fronts.

The geography is troubling. Argentina is not an easy flight for teams from any part of the world.

It's time difference is also an issue and having one team in such relative isolation adds significant costs and welfare burdens.

The same problem exists with the Sunwolves. Next year they will play in the Australian Conference and the logistics of that are going to be tedious. How much it's going to cost flying so many times between Australia and Japan is also a serious concern. Best guess is that it is the better part of $180,000 a time to shift a team long haul.

It's not as if a week in Tokyo comes cheap on the accommodation front either and it does feel a little crazy to be structuring a competition with such heavy embedded costs.

Crazy when the Islands are right there, smack bang in the right part of the Pacific Ocean to make them an easy hop from both Australia and New Zealand.

Crazy when the Islands have the infrastructure these days to successfully accommodate and host teams. The Chiefs and Crusaders are playing in Fiji this year and the Blues will take on the Reds in Apia.

This effort to include and embrace the Islands is to be welcomed, but it shouldn't disguise the fact that the Samoa and Fiji deserve more involvement than one game each.

And why use the word deserve? Because Fiji, Samoa and Tonga continue to bring to the world stage a truck load of high quality rugby players every year. They continue to invest what little they do have in producing athletic, dynamic, highly skilled players that are in huge demand around the world.

Look how far and wide the Islands' diaspora have travelled and what influence they currently have. The Lions are bringing to New Zealand the Vunipola boys, Ben Te'o and Toby Faletau.

They will play against All Blacks such as Malakai Fekitoa and Waisake Naholo who were schooled and developed in Tonga and Fiji respectively into their mid-teens.

That production line has been to the benefit of most every other nation except Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. The rest of the world has been able to lure Pacific players through club contracts and then snaffle them for their national sides through the residency rule.

If that pathway feels exploitative and wrong, it's because it mostly is and plonking a Super Rugby side that splits its games between Apia and Suva would go a long way towards creating a compelling alternative to players in the region.

But above all else, Super Rugby bosses finally have to realise that what the competition needs more than anything else is more teams with credibility. The expansion teams they have brought in over the years have all, without exception, done little or nothing on the field. The Force, Cheetahs, Rebels Sunwolves and Kings have been cannon fodder.

The Jaguares have some potential but, for the foreseeable future they are a mid-table team. Set up shop in the Pacific Islands and surely the outcome can't be any worse?

A team from that part of the world could bring explosive power and high quality rugby that may not necessarily be an immediate winning formula but will at least be genuinely entertaining and challenging to play against.

- NZ Herald

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