A group of respected New Zealand rugby leaders are attempting to incorporate the Island nations into a possible joint venture for a Pacific Super Rugby team.
Until now, the ambitious Tracy Atiga-led Kanaloa Hawai'i bid, backed by former All Blacks such as Jerome Kaino and Joe Rokocoko, was the only known group to express formal interest in launching a Pacific side into Super Rugby, following NZ Rugby's decision to establish an eight-to-10 team competition from next year.
• Outrage in Fiji as rapist trains with rugby club while serving sentence
• Super Rugby Aotearoa: Beauden Barrett criticises Wellington crowd behaviour after rough return
• Rugby Australia chairman says no to New Zealand Rugby's Super Rugby plans
• Rugby league: Former Warriors star Kevin Locke hoping to spark NRL return
Although details remain sketchy, the Weekend Herald can reveal an alternative option has emerged as a spinoff of attempts to assemble a Moana-Pacific side to play the All Blacks in a warm-up fixture before the Bledisloe Cup series in October.
It is believed this New Zealand-based group has support from highly-respected Pacific figures such as Eroni Clarke and Michael Jones, and is in the early stages of reaching out to Pacific Island rugby leaders, with a view to them having direct influence and ownership in shaping the future of any Super Rugby team.
The Weekend Herald understands the New Zealand Rugby Players' Association is facilitating the inclusive approach which aims to establish an alternative option that gives all stakeholders, including the five existing New Zealand sides, a voice in bringing a Pacific team to life and ensuring its long-term success.
New Zealand Rugby Players' Association boss Rob Nichol was reluctant to talk specifics when approached by the Weekend Herald — citing the need to respect Matai custom — but did confirm the alternative option was under way.
"New Zealand Rugby and others have flagged the opportunity for a Pacific team, and from our perspective, if there is the chance for something to be done that was feasible and works for Pasifika, then we'd love to see it," Nichol said. "Whatever it is, it has to work for Pasifika. We're working with everyone as part of the process."
New Zealand Rugby's long overdue commitment to welcoming a Pacific team has been largely lost amid the ugly public fallout with Rugby Australia over the directive for expressions of interest from their five sides.
Having stated the Pacific team is now a priority, NZR is treating that side differently to the Australian scenario and will instead be "actively engaged" in the start-up.
It is understood NZR's pledge may extend to initial financial assistance in a similar form to the national body stepping in to take a short-term stake in the Blues franchise two years ago. Sharing broadcast rights money is another avenue, as is requesting World Rugby support.
New Zealand Super Rugby teams each cost around $10 million to run annually. That figure includes $5m- $6m to pay players and management. Many questions remain around any Pacific venture, including who will pay the players, but there is a realisation of the importance of ensuring the entry is viable and sustainable.
Clarke could emerge as a pivotal figure in helping establish a Pacific team. Having joined NZ Rugby as their first Pasifika engagement manager before lockdown, the former Blues and All Blacks midfielder is intent on addressing inequalities in Pacific representation throughout the game.
"We've long had a desire to have a Pacific-led team in Super Rugby. The wonderful thing is we are drawing closer to the dream coming to fruition," Clarke told the Herald before the latest developments in recent days.
"It really does put a stake in the ground for Pacific people. It aligns with a lot of where New Zealand Rugby is but also global rugby and the recognition of Pacific contribution to the game.
"We're much closer to it now than we've ever been before. It would open doors, provide opportunities, for the aspirations of the Pacific community to normalise areas that we haven't been prevalent in before. It's a wonderful opportunity."
Earlier this week, Kanaloa Hawai'i chief executive Atiga insisted criticism from Hawaiian senator Glenn Wakai about the franchise's financial backing had been dealt with. But concerns remain about launching teams in the United States and Super Rugby.
Tana Umaga, the first All Blacks captain of Pacific descent, stressed the importance of any team forging genuine links back to the Island nations.
"People have been calling out for it for a long time. It is sad to see what is happening with Pacific Island rugby at the moment," Umaga said.
"We know there are pathways for the players to go overseas and come to New Zealand to develop but it's the pathways back where they can help out their own nations that are lacking.
"We've seen a steady decline in terms of Samoan rugby. From a Samoan perspective, it's not going well for our people. There's a lot of water to run under the bridge of what is the purpose of the team, but if it's done right, it can only be a great thing.
"If they have something locally that can help represent the people within the Island nations and there's a pathway, then that's a way of strengthening rugby in the Islands."
Despite concerns over the player pool, he believes a Pacific side can co-exist with the Blues in Auckland.
"Auckland is the biggest Pacific city in the world. There's always talent if you look around club rugby — the clubs are made up of Pacific Island players.
"It makes sense that it's based here. Where would it be based in the Islands? It would probably go to Fiji and then you ask who runs it, who benefits from that? There are all those things to consider but I think it could be based out of Auckland."
Time frames to launch the eight-to-10 team competition are tight, with NZR giving itself until September before schedules need to be worked through for 2021.
The Weekend Herald also understands plans to stage a best-of-the-best crossover style club tournament involving elite teams from around the globe following the Super Rugby season have been pushed back until 2022.
The scheduled British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa in 2021 makes the crossover tournament unworkable in the July window that year.