By EUGENE BINGHAM political reporter

The Government bowed to pressure from the Rugby Football Union to soften its stance on Fiji sporting sanctions, despite pleas from the Australians to stand firm.

Papers obtained by the Herald reveal that the Government's decision to slide away from a complete ban on sporting visits by Fiji - to save problems for the Wellington rugby sevens tournament - began with a meeting between the union and the Minister for Sport, Trevor Mallard.

The Australian Government was puzzled by the decision and met Foreign Minister Phil Goff to ask him to reconsider.


But Mr Goff rejected Australia's pleas and recommended the Government make an exception for tournaments such as the International Rugby Board's sevens tournament. He did not want the decision to be presented as a softening of New Zealand's position.

When Mr Goff announced the policy decision in November, he said he had tried to negotiate an international boycott of the Fijians in protest at the May coup, led by George Speight, but had failed to win support from anyone but the Australians.

The papers show that the Australians were trying to get New Zealand to maintain its stance.

While the Fijians have been granted visas to come to New Zealand for next month's matches at Wellington Stadium, the Australian Government has refused to allow them into Australia for the Brisbane leg of the tournament. The IRB reacted yesterday by cancelling the Brisbane leg.

In a press release last July, Prime Minister Helen Clark and Mr Goff announced increased diplomatic, defence and sport measures against Fiji.

"Today we are extending the ban on sporting contacts with Fiji to December 31, 2000," they said. "The ban will cover national and club sides, and individuals deemed to be representing Fiji at sporting competitions in New Zealand."

In October, Mr Goff said: "New Zealand will continue to keep its smart sanctions against Mr Speight and those involved in the coup in place."

But in a report to a cabinet committee that same month, Mr Goff said New Zealand should continue to ban bilateral sporting fixtures with Fiji, but allow Fijian teams to take part in some international tournaments.

"Refusal to allow Fiji teams' entry for the latter type of event may act against our wider regional or other interests and result in New Zealand being bypassed as a venue."

The change in position began after representations from the rugby union in late September.

Mr Mallard confirmed that the union had claimed New Zealand's ability to host the series would be compromised if Fiji was banned. Rugby chiefs also said it was likely to affect New Zealand's co-hosting of the 2003 World Cup.

Foreign Affairs officials were made aware of the Australian view of the Government's change of position when Canberra staff sent a cable back to Wellington saying the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs was "very curious as to why we would contemplate this."

A week later, Australian High Commissioner Bob Cotton called upon Mr Goff to state New Zealand's position.

Mr Goff responded by drawing an analogy with the Olympics, where Fiji took part.

A report on the meeting also noted Mr Goff had considered how the decision would be presented to the public.

"The amendment would not be announced as a softening of New Zealand's policy," said the report.