COMMENT

There's one contrary point to make about the hubbub surrounding rugby's so-called World League: if we are so concerned about the Pacific Island nations missing out, why aren't they in Sanzaar's Rugby Championship?

The answer is the same as the inferred explanation from World Rugby's much derided proposal to have a world league of 12 nations, none of whom were Fiji, Samoa or Tonga but two of whom were the United States and Japan (in spite of Fiji being ranked above both).

Money. Just as broadcasters apparently interested in the world league don't give a big hairy rat's heiny about the Islands, so Sanzaar's broadcasters have also not paid the extra required to include even one of the three main rugby-playing Island nations.

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The populations are so small and, let's face it, low-income that advertisers and sponsors see no purpose in connecting to those countries. That's just as true of the Rugby Championship as it is of the world league.

So there has been an element of hypocrisy in outrage over the Island nations being sent to the world league's equivalent of the bottom of a long drop.

There have been some past efforts made about a joint Islands team, consisting of Pasifika players, taking part in Super Rugby or international rugby.

The Pacific Islands rugby team, populated by players from Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Niue and the Cook Islands, lasted during 2004-08, playing nine tests and two matches. They lost all tests bar one (Italy) and defeated a Queensland XV and New South Wales.

They attracted good crowds when playing against New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland and France. But it was a flawed concept. In between tours, the players would revert to their home nations and start preparing for the World Cup — thereby undoing the continuity and the concept

In the end, our old friend money intervened. Samoa pulled out, citing a lack of revenue supposed to have come from the joint venture. The IRB (as it was then) didn't help by scheduling matches every four years instead of two.

It's unlikely to work in Super Rugby either. Culturally, none of the Islands like the idea of mixing the gene pool that much and there would likely be vexing governance issues.

Fiji claimed their first ever win over France last year. Photo / Photosport
Fiji claimed their first ever win over France last year. Photo / Photosport

So Island players are stuck in the current no-man's land. They can either play Super Rugby or earn vast amounts in Europe. When it comes to international rugby, they have few opportunities to play against meaningful teams and are often leaned on heavily by their European club masters.

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Last year, when he was admitted to the Hall of Fame, Sir Bryan Williams had a good old chew at World Rugby and Sanzaar — but he could just as easily have had a crack at New Zealand Rugby, for whom he was once elected president.

In the past 10 years, only two tests have been played by the All Blacks against Pacific Islands opposition outside the World Cup. Only one of those matches was played in the Islands (Samoa, in 2015) but it cost the home union about $1 million, mostly in paying overseas-based players to be there.

A case for a combined Islands team, based in Suva, was being considered again late last year by World Rugby but little has been heard of that lately. That's because more than 500 European-based Island players are unlikely to be involved. Coming home to play internationals for a team not solely representing their own country means they'd have to take huge salary cuts.

World Rugby vice-chairman Agustin Pichot said last year: "It's a very delicate situation. They make so much money in France and England, bringing them to play for their home nations is complicated."

Yep, it's delicate all right. The big boys need to find a way to spread the money round — but that seems too delicate for words. Australia is cash-strapped, New Zealand and South Africa are fighting the effects of losing players to the big cheques of Europe — so any change needs to come largely from northern wealth; precious few signs of that happening.

Sir Clive Woodward, of England and Lions rugby, wrote in his Daily Mail column some time back that "tens of millions" of pounds needed to be directed to islands rugby, not the annual grant of £1.5m ($2.9m).

"It's certainly high time England, for one, went down there — they have yet to play a test in the Pacific Islands in the professional era, which is embarrassing and wrong."

Woodward also suggested rugby copy football's profit-sharing system in the FA Cup, where smaller teams share gate revenue when playing larger clubs, a big bone of contention in rugby. The Southern Hemisphere have been lobbying for years for a share of gate receipts, broadcasting income and commercial deals — all of which is enthusiastically trousered by the home nations when, for example, the All Blacks are touring.

It's an unsustainable situation — Europe's financial strength will only weaken international rugby further, with the Pacific Islands the biggest stain on the sole of world rugby's shoe.