By CHRIS RATTUE



'They call us rival countries but off the field we're all good mates," says Pacific Islanders captain Inoke Afeaki, about his combination team.



"The boys have made a real effort to get to know each other, and being on tour helps. You learn so much about each other and faster.



"It's been easy bonding together - Island boys are very sociable."

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When the Islanders assembled a couple of weeks ago, coach John Boe's first concern was to get the team to gel.



They had no hope, said Boe, unless a common spirit could be found between the players of Fijian, Tongan, Samoan and - in the case of flanker Tu Tamarua - Cook Islands origin. But it wasn't something that worried Afeaki.



"In fact I haven't seen too many teams over the years who haven't gelled," said Afeaki, who plays for the Secom club near Tokyo, after a career with Wellington and the Hurricanes.



"There is the odd exception and you get a bad apple now and then, but there is no case of a bad apple in this squad. It's just a joy to be a part of."



Afeaki, who turns 31 on Monday, was born in Tonga, and was just three when his parents Etuate - who also played for Tonga - and Losaline brought the family to Wellington. The primary reason for moving to New Zealand was for their children's education.



Etuate worked as a builder/plumber and then in an engineering factory, and Losaline in a cigarette factory.



Mission accomplished, they returned to Losaline's village of Pangai, on the island of Ha'apai, when their children had flown the nest. Although Afeaki visits Pangai only once a year, it is a place that plays a key part in his life.



"I don't really have a home but I can always go to Pangai to fully recharge," he says.

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Japan - where he has played rugby for six of the last nine seasons - is a second home, and he travels to meet friends around the globe when he can.



In Pangai, he can relax and indulge in his favourite past-time, joining the locals in "shooting fish and avoiding the sharks".



His parents, he says, have taken on a whole new glow of health since returning to Pangai, where they have a tiny farm and are part of a small production co-operative.



Examples of the oldest Tongan pottery have been discovered in the village, which has fired Afeaki's interest in the history of the country and the region.



"I'm not a historian," he says, but he gives the impression that he is a very keen amateur.



When asked about the various components which make up his team, he cites an episode at training as an example of where they find common ground.



The players were counting through their warm-up drills in Australia, when their Tongan assistant coach Willie Ofahengaue - after listening to Tamarua - realised a similarity between the Cook Island and Tongan numbering systems.



The Cook Island word for 10 is similar to the Maori word tekau. While the Tongan equivalent is the vastly different hongofulu, there is an exception.



Ofahengaue piped up: "Hey, in Tonga that word means 10 coconuts."



Afeaki says the cultures are similar to a surprising extent.



"My grandfather's family were among the Tongans who moved back from Fiji in the early 1900s. And there was a big Tongan community in Fiji for many years."




The Pacific Islanders team have mixed the cultures up in a number of ways. The players share rooms on a positional, and not nationality, basis. Their pre-game war dance includes parts of the Fijian, Tongan and Samoan dances.



Of course the players also know each other from their various clubs and representative teams, and although most were born in the Islands, many have links from school days in New Zealand.



The team has quickly found support both here and in the Islands, although the tricky question remains of how to also balance the aspirations of the individual island teams.



Fiji, Tonga and Samoa appear to be drifting further and further behind the superpowers of world rugby, but will still want to retain their identities - especially at World Cup time. The combined team, however, presents the Pacific Islands with their best chance to challenge teams like the All Blacks and Wallabies on the field, and they can also use aspiring All Blacks.



Afeaki says: "We can become like the British Lions with the cream of the crop from the Islands.



"It's also a great stepping stone for a player like Sione Lauaki, who can show [All Black coach] Graham Henry what he's capable of."



For now though, Afeaki steers clear of getting bogged down about the future. After missing out on Ofahengaue's initial Tongan squad this year, and winning a recall only because of injuries, he is especially glad to be part of this rugby history.



"We're trying to create something, and I'm just trying to add my little bit."