The enthusiasm with which the All Blacks have been greeted in Apia should get New Zealand Rugby thinking. If it does, Samoa's long-overdue hosting of a test between the two countries today should be a harbinger of things to come, not a one-off public relations exercise squeezed into this year's fixtures list. The interest in today's match is a stark contrast to the lack of enthusiasm that has come to accompany the customary visit of a northern nation at this time of the year.
Those engagements have become tedious. The visitors put in little effort knowing they face almost certain defeat. Usually, they arrive with teams depleted by the club commitments that take precedence in the professional era. The attempt to instil interest by increasing to three the number of tests on these short tours has made not a jot of difference. Only a tour by the British and Irish Lions continues to stir interest. It is doubtful that many New Zealanders even noticed the absence of the usual June tour by a northern nation this year.
The tours are said to be the price we pay for the All Blacks' lucrative annual visits to the Northern Hemisphere in November. But the rugby union should be assessing its options. If it was not committed to hosting the June tours, all sorts of possibilities open up. One would be the resumption of longer but less frequent tours of Britain and France in the northern autumn. Another would be the slotting into June of more matches against Samoa, Fiji and Tonga. That, after all, is where this country's greatest obligation lies.
So far, scant acknowledgment has been made of this despite the three countries' proximity and the contribution that players from them have made to New Zealand rugby. With cash, especially from TV rights, calling the tune, seemingly to the exclusion of all other factors, this country, along with Australia, has been reluctant to take top-level rugby to the islands. To add insult to injury, Argentina was added to what was the Tri-Nations Championship, while the Pacific nations were left to languish.
This state of affairs has persisted despite the island nations' popularity and competitiveness at World Cups. Little has been done to fulfil their obvious potential through, most logically, more frequent matches at the top international level. Samoan rugby officials have been thwarted at virtually every turn. They could find no salvation in an expanded Super competition, and a composite team from the Pacific failed to get far off the ground. Even at World Cups, they have been entitled to feel regarded as second-class citizens. At the last tournament, Samoa's prospects were hampered by the scheduling of their matches close together.
International rugby needs Pacific rugby, not least for the colour, passion and flair that it brings to a game which can become mired in stolidity. The All Blacks would do better to play matches in June against Samoa, Fiji and Tonga than stage desultory clashes against barely interested northern nations. We have been spared the latter this year. That should be a pointer to the future.