The social and economic complexities of New Zealand's relationships with the Pacific Island nations has always been rugby's defence to accusations that the sport here is guilty of player poaching.

The Northern Hemisphere nations for the last 15 years or so have looked at the make-up of the All Blacks, seen a heavy Island influence and called foul play. New Zealand Rugby has been branded predatory - guilty of robbing the best young talent from the emerging nations of Samoa, Fiji and Tonga who, if they could keep it, would be genuine contenders at the World Cup.

It has never been that simple, though. New Zealand is a magnet within the region, luring people with the promise of employment and educational opportunities, to the extent that the 2013 census showed that 7.4 per cent of New Zealand's population considered themselves to be Pacific peoples.

This is a land of economic and social opportunity and New Zealand's rugby landscape is merely a reflection of that - a beneficiary rather than a driver of Pacific immigration. That's how executives, administrators and coaches across New Zealand have made peace with the fact that over the last 30 years or so, the All Blacks have picked 35 players who were born in the Islands. The wider complexities of immigration have given the game here a clear conscience that they haven't been guilty of pillaging the best talent out of the Islands - the likes of Jerry Collins, Jerome Kaino, Olo Brown, Mils Muliaina, Sitiveni Sivivatu and Joe Rokocoko.


But while this argument unquestionably has strong foundations, the make-up of the match day 23 the All Blacks have picked to play Argentina creates a base to legitimately question whether there is a more cynical and deliberate element to player recruitment that is hidden within the wider immigration picture.

The question to ask is whether the All Blacks the acceptable face of player poaching?

Three of the All Blacks starting team in Buenos Aires - Nepo Laulala, Vaea Fifita and Waisake Naholo - qualify as eligible on the residency rule that they have lived in New Zealand for more than three years. Naholo and Fifita both came in their mid-teens to further their education, the latter because he was spotted while playing at a tournament in Auckland. A few months later, he was offered a scholarship at Tamaki College so he left Tonga.

And Fifita is by no means an isolated case because this is how the system works. Across New Zealand there are schools actively looking to import Pacific talent be it through scholarships, family relationships or church connections.

There are clubs, too, looking to do the same - working with local employers to create jobs to bring over players who end up winning provincial contracts, with plenty more going on to higher honours from there. This is how former All Black Saimone Taumoepeau ended up in New Zealand - he came from Tonga as a 20-year-old, taking a job at a freezing works which was organised by Marist Brothers Old Boys.

NZR can say its hands are clean in respect to recruitment but it sits at the apex of a vast and diverse piece of machinery where there is deliberate targeting of talented Pacific Island players hidden within the system.

The national body isn't signing cheques directly as such; it is not sending spies to the Islands but others within the rugby fraternity are and it is almost the equivalent of a money laundering system where by the time these deliberately recruited players make it to the All Blacks, they are deemed to be 'clean'.

Fifita, as an example, has been embraced as an All Black - celebrated as yet another product from an endlessly impressive conveyor belt. But if it hadn't been for a chance sighting when he was 17, he'd most likely have been at the World Cup with Tonga in 2015. He didn't actually become eligible for the All Blacks until September last year, but that fact will be conveniently buried following his wow factor performance against the Pumas in New Plymouth.


There is clearly some kind of tacit acknowledgement within NZR that they are the ultimate, welcome and not so unwitting beneficiaries of what goes on beneath them as evidenced when chief executive Steve Tew confirmed in early 2015 that the All Blacks would, for the first time, be playing a test in Samoa. "This will be a wonderful celebration of the rich rugby connections and proud history that bind New Zealand and Samoa," he said. "We know how much rugby means to Samoans and we know how important Samoa has been to rugby in New Zealand so to take the All Blacks to Apia will be a huge moment for all of us."

The influence of the Islands is undeniable when there are three residency players in the All Blacks starting XV and nine of their match day 23 is dual qualified.