Repeat after me: It's not just a game, and this is not just about rugby.

Ask the Tongan fans who turned up in their wildly enthusiastic thousands to welcome their World Cup team to Auckland last week.

As TV3's John Campbell observed, in between being smothered with kisses from Tongans outside Auckland Airport, most of those who turned up to welcome the 'Ikale Tahi squad were female - many of whom, I'd wager, knew next to nothing about rugby.

They weren't there because the players were fine-looking specimens of Polynesian manhood, either, as Campbell implied, although some of them clearly were, as a young Tongan-Palagi woman of my acquaintance noted proudly.


No, they were there because Tonga's billing in the opening match of the Rugby World Cup had made them a lightning rod for Tongan pride. (And they would have been at Eden Park on Friday night, too, if ticket prices hadn't required another mortgage on the house.)

I know it's uncool in some quarters to like rugby and be excited about the cup. But I do, and I am. Yes, even after Friday's embarrassing public transport debacle all but ruined it for the tens of thousands of us who heeded the call to leave our cars at home.

This is a love affair that began back in the 1970s, when I was a kid growing up in Porirua, Wellington, and almost the only Samoan on the national stage was an All Black winger named Bryan Williams.

Obviously, I was never going to emulate his brilliance on the rugby field (I didn't have his impressive thighs), but the fact that he excelled at the national sport, and that he was world class, made "BeeGee" a shining star in an otherwise bleak firmament. He was a beacon of hope.

The implications of his being made an "honorary white" so he could tour South Africa as an All Black in 1970 were lost on me. What I cared about was that he was good, a standout star who scored 14 tries in 13 matches.

And back then, when media coverage of Polynesians was unrelentingly negative, that meant everything.

How grateful I am that Pacific Islanders are good at rugby and not, say, ping-pong.

I'm often asked if I think our prowess on the sports field, especially in rugby, has improved attitudes towards Pacific Islanders in this country. Yes, and no.


Long after the All Blacks got their first Samoan captain, the dreadlocked Tana Umaga, we were still "debating" whether Pacific Island players were all brawn and no brain, tacklers but not tacticians.

But when it comes to our passion for the national game, we are in complete accord with rugby-loving New Zealand. After all, how many opportunities does a small Pacific Island nation get to make its mark on the world stage?

World Cup heartbreaks notwithstanding, the fact that the All Blacks are still regarded as the best in the world makes them an integral part of New Zealand's "soft power" arsenal.

As Andrew Butcher, of the Asia New Zealand Foundation points out, "Soft power diplomacy through the Rugby World Cup ... is not just symbolic. Money and people from New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade have been diverted to support the RWC and you won't have to go far to hear the term 'rugby diplomacy' used as a new form of New Zealand's soft power."

The fact that the Pacific Islands Forum was deliberately scheduled so visiting politicians could attend the Rugby World Cup opening match "is soft power in its most 'Kiwi' form".

Rugby has never been just a game for New Zealand.

And those of us who marched against the 1981 Springbok Tour (the final match was played at Eden Park 30 years ago today) were in no doubt of rugby's significance to national identity and pride, here and in apartheid South Africa.

The power of sport to ignite and unite is wonderfully illustrated in the stirring cricket documentary Fire in Babylon, which tells the story of West Indian cricket and its rise from the bitter ashes of defeat at the hands of the Aussies in 1975, to 15 years of unprecedented world domination.

Before then, the West Indians had been referred to disparagingly as "calypso cricketers" - brilliant but flaky.

The team's exploits lifted black pride and aspiration, and united the whole of the Caribbean under one banner.

"What our politicians could not do, we did," cricketing great Viv Richards has said. "When we were playing and we got out on that field, we put aside all the differences, the issues which the islands had, uniting that region together ..."

Richards' teammate Michael Holding hoped the documentary would spark a revival among young kids growing up in the Caribbean: "What we are trying to tell them, and what this film will tell them, is the history of West Indies cricket, where it's coming from, and that it's not just a sport. It's not just something that you play to make a living."

The Caribbean example prompted one Australian commentator to ask recently whether anyone had thought of pulling together a supra-national Pacific Islands rugby team along the lines of the West Indies cricket team.

Yes, quipped one reader. And that team is called New Zealand.