SYDNEY (AP) — A Fiji team will join Australia's National Rugby Championship in 2017, laying the platform for a potential future push for a Pacific island team in Super Rugby.
Fiji provided one of the feel-good stories of the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in August when its men won the first rugby sevens title, and secured the country's first Olympic medal.
But while being a long-time leader in the abbreviated sevens format, Fiji has never progressed beyond the Rugby World Cup quarterfinals.
Because of a lack of infrastructure and funding, talented rugby players have tended to go abroad to Europe, New Zealand, or Australia to seek professional opportunities. The momentum of the exodus has recently been increasing.
To help Fiji keep some homegrown talent at home, World Rugby is underwriting the participation of the Fiji Warriors in Australia's NRC.
"Their inclusion in the NRC will enhance the competition both in terms of the quality of rugby and by adding a huge amount of support and interest from the Fijian communities both in Fiji and here in Australia," Australian Rugby Union chief executive Bill Pulver said at the official announcement on Friday.
The NRC, which launched in 2014, has become a second-tier tournament for Australia's province-based professionals who don't make their national teams, and for emerging talent from the major city-based club competitions.
Fiji will host four home games in the one-round, nine-team competition next season. A successful campaign would make for a compelling case for the next step.
Super Rugby has recently expanded beyond Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa to Japan and Argentina. And the Pacific islands, a long-time nursery of rugby talent, would be a popular addition in any further expansion.
World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont said he was committed to working with the unions in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga because the "Pacific islands play a major role in the sport's heritage and future."
"Participation in the NRC ... provides locally-based players with a strong alternative to playing club rugby overseas should they wish to remain in the Fijian system."
Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, who was in Sydney on Friday for the announcement, said the NRC initiative "does redress some of the current imbalances" caused by "the exploitation of very talented players."
"We have sometimes felt forgotten. Some of our best players have left Fiji and have gone outside the region to play professional rugby," he was quoted as saying by Australian Associated Press. "Some have even adopted countries when they would have much preferred to stay at home to play professionally."
Fiji coach John McKee expected the NRC opportunity to keep more players in the Pacific.
"I would hope that it maybe opens up some more doors for Fijian players to play in Super Rugby," McKee said. "By playing in the NRC, they will be in front of the Super Rugby coaches and selectors."