These are highly promising times for Pacific Islands rugby – and here's hoping they don't have the chair pulled out from under them just as they sit down at Super Rugby's top table.
The empty promises and false dawns of Pasifika rugby are legion. But, if it's true New Zealand Rugby is prepared to bankroll a Pasifika team based in Auckland for Super Rugby 2021, one of the most compelling elements of southern hemisphere rugby could finally be allowed to flourish.
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Previously many have believed such a team (with players from Samoa, Tonga and Fiji) won't happen because of factors like money, eligibility, lack of quality players and Covid-19 – and the probability that basing a franchise in the islands risked money silently ebbing away to mysterious places.
The main danger, however, is the Pasifika team becoming a bargaining chip in the ugly clash between New Zealand and Australian rugby. They could be the archetypal political football as the two swap blows over the make-up of next year's competition – with New Zealand proposing five New Zealand franchises, between 2-4 from our aggrieved transtasman neighbours and a Pasifika team.
Many in the know have said the only way a Pasifika team would work is to have it run by New Zealand Rugby as a sixth franchise. They say too, that with many of the islands' best players in the northern hemisphere, some seasoned palagi and/or international players might have to be conscripted to help bolster the ranks at first – maybe even allowing existing players to turn out for it without disturbing All Black eligibility.
Australian outrage at being little-brothered by NZ Rugby over next year's format spilled over to this issue, with RA spluttering that a Pasifika team would be better quartered in Sydney, as it has a large Pasifika population – and that basing it in Auckland would be detrimental to the Blues.
So you can see how the nascent Pasifika team might end up being the taro in the sandwich if this unseemly squabble continues; they'd be everyone's bet as first to be sacrificed.
However, RA boss Hamish McLennan now says Australia has "no interest" in playing in New Zealand's competition – and is pressing ahead with Plan B, an eight-team competition involving five Australian franchises, the Fijian Drua team (which plays in Australia's second tier national rugby championship), the revival of Japan's Sunwolves, plus an as-yet-unknown Argentinian side. No mention of Samoa or Tonga – or a blended Pasifika team.
It seems a hopeful, rather than compelling, premise. Anyone who watched the Waratahs-Rebels match on Friday night will be reminded of the standard of Australian rugby right now. They really need us.
However, a key player in the whole business could yet be billionaire Australian mining magnate Andrew "Twiggy" Forrest, the man behind the re-emergence of the Western Force in Super Rugby and backer of the Global Rapid Rugby competition – formed when the Force were dumped from Super Rugby. He has also poured $7 million into grassroots rugby in Western Australia.
The winner of GRR stood to pocket $1m (it was called off after one round due to Covid-19) – and the multicultural membership caught the eye. GRR regulars comprised the Fijian Latui (drawn mostly from in-Fiji local talent), Manuma Samoa (ditto), the China Lions (a joint venture between Bay of Plenty and China with Mitre 10 Cup players from five unions, coached by Gordon Tietjens), Malaysia Valke (a South African-dominated franchise based in Kuala Lumpur) and the Hong Kong-based South China Tigers.
If Forrest is in it for the long haul, as he says, he could continue to help Pasifika rugby. In a Sky Sport interview recently, he favoured a Pacific Islands team in Super Rugby and – in 2-3 years – teams from China, India and Sri Lanka. He also said: "You blokes need an Australian side to want to be the best in the world – because that's what will keep you there".
Then there's Kanaloa Hawaii – the Pacific Islands team involving former All Blacks Jerome Kaino, Joe Rokocoko and John Afoa who could either aim their already-bankrolled enterprise at Super Rugby or their original target, Major League Rugby in the US.
If a Pasifika team is to survive this political turmoil and likely horse-trading, it will need to be a long-term proposition. Even a joint side won't initially be composed of the best the islands have to offer; many top players are locked up in northern hemisphere rugby.
Over time, it would ideally pave the way for more Pacific Islands players to stay in this part of the world, eschewing the charms of the north for a professional contract – and equipping the islands' national teams with more high-quality, experienced players than they can lay hands on now.
It must have more longevity than last time – the little-remembered Pacific Islanders team of 2004-2008 was an awkward amalgamation who played nine tests, including two northern tours. They lost eight, beating Italy in their last test after playing some tough customers: Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France and Italy.
However, it's not just about results. A blended Pasifika team is in danger of not really satisfying anyone. The member nations have separate – and proud – identities, not to mention fierce rivalries. Any joint entity has to get around that or risk being neither one thing nor the other.
The Pacific Islands team fell apart when Samoa pulled out in 2008, saying the promised financial benefits to the member unions had not accrued. The money seems better aimed this time but a blended team still faces a struggle – unless the franchise has decent branding and quick success.
Easier said than done.