Rugby aims to open up new frontiers this year when Japan host the first World Cup held in Asia, but the talent-rich Pacific island nations feel they are still being neglected by the game’s powerbrokers.
The island nations of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga all boast a rich rugby heritage and a wealth of playing talent, but have battled to overcome financial hardships and geographic isolation.
Lobby group Pacific Rugby Players Welfare estimates about 20 percent of all professional players come from islander backgrounds, highlighting the region’s contribution to the international game.
While the figure is open to interpretation, there is no doubt Pacific islanders have long bolstered the Test squads of New Zealand and Australia, and more recently England and France.
Fiji coach John McKee said there was an “X-factor” about Pacific rugby which could electrify the game.
“They’re very gifted athletes and have that warrior spirit, which goes back in their history. It’s in their DNA and carries on into their rugby,” he said.
But for all their on-field attributes, the Pacific nations face serious off-field issues that prevent them from consistently challenging the game’s global superpowers.
Some are beyond their control, including geographic isolation, lack of financial resources and the actions of player agents luring top talent overseas.
Other problems such as poor governance and political interference in the game can be controlled and there are signs things are slowly improving.
The islands, with a collective population of less than 1.5 million, lack financial clout and most promising players soon sign for foreign clubs, making it hard to forge a cohesive national team.
“Our top players are spread all around the world, particularly in Europe,” McKee said. “So keeping an eye on their form, current fitness and injury status is a major task for us.
“It puts us at a disadvantage against our competitors, particularly tier one nations, who get a lot more time together.”
For years, some unscrupulous player agents exacerbated the problem, signing up budding teenage stars to one-sided European club contracts in a situation former Fiji sevens coach Ben Ryan likened to “the Wild West”.
McKee said tighter eligibility rules in Europe meant the problem had eased but young players still needed support when leaving their family networks to travel to a foreign culture where they often did not speak the local language. - AFP