The Pacific is the heart of rugby; it's high time that was acknowledged

In all the coverage of this month’s World Cup one contrasting image sticks in my craw. It says so much about what rugby must do to regain its heart in the Pacific. 

The headquarters of the Fijian Rugby Union was described by their former Sevens coach, Ben Ryan, in the Guardian this month, as being based in a two-room shed with a whiteboard, a fan and a laptop. 

It’s unlikely the data scientists and analytics boffins the top tier nations take with them everywhere  could even fit their staff and equipment inside the Fijian HQ. They certainly haven’t had use for a whiteboard for some years, I’ll bet. 

For years now, teams like Wales have had GPS tracking sewn into players’ jerseys to identify who’s making runs, calorie deficits and who’s overtired. Now they even have concussion monitors. For the Irish team the stats gurus never miss a training session meticulously recording into a spreadsheet every dropped catch, 60 metre sprint time and more to allow Artificial Intelligence programs to do the rest. 

Back to Fiji, the team held a fundraiser in Australia shortly before the World Cup.. Part of the proceeds raised, the team said, would go towards paying for players’ excess baggage allowances on domestic flights in Japan (World Rugby sprang for the international fares) and basics like knee strapping.

This disparity is, frankly, a disgrace. Pacific nations are the heart and soul of Rugby Union - and that’s not empty rhetoric. Some 20 per cent of all top-tier players have Pasifika heritage. But this seems to have been forgotten by the powers that be in the game’s administration. 

In Samoa you’ll see kids using rolled up jandals as balls. In Australia, by contrast, rugby is a third-ran sport and the exclusive province of private school boys mocked by most of the country. Ditto with England where soccer is the national sport. Members of toffee-nosed aristocracy in that country are derisively known as ‘rugger buggers’. 

And yet these are the class of nations that seem to treat us with contempt.

When England hosted Samoa at Twickenham in 2017 they donated GBP£75,000 to the Samoan team. Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? But thanks to the London Times we know that represents just one per cent of the revenue generated in that game.

Still, we were lucky to even run on against a top-tier team. The over professionalised sides see nothing to be gained from risking injury in playing Pacific nations and they don’t. 

It took a concerted campaign by Toleafoa John Campbell to bring the All Blacks to Apia in 2015. And we played Australia in September but that match had more to do with countering Chinese diplomatic efforts than rugby. Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s equivocal answer when our Prime Minister invited him to come play in Apia spoke volumes. 

Ever since the mid-’90s and the introduction of professionalism and the flow of cash into the sport has been in a downward spiral. The way Japan has put in barnstorming performances in the past two World Cups despite not having a rugby tradition says a lot about how the new regime works. 

Samoa and Tonga are the second and third oldest teams in this year’s World Cup. One shudders to think what the Pasifika teams’ performance in the 2023 World Cup might look like when they are composed of newbies. 

They won’t be match fit, you can be sure of the.  How are Pacific players expected to improve when other nations simply won’t deign to compete with us because we’re not important enough to risk injury?

The disparity is massive. The 10 Tier 1 squads have over 8800 caps between them. The same number of Tier 2 squad just a little less than one thousand.

The abandoned proposal by World Rugby to have a tournament that would have excluded Pacific nations entirely says a lot about that organisation’s priorities.

I’ll leave the issues of nationality laws, country eligibility and sub-conscious racism in refereeing aside because they  have been well-hearsed in the coverage by the Samoa Observer.

Rugby is in the middle of a decades-long identity crisis brought on by the professional era and trying to take a corporation’s philosophy to running national sport. For centuries national sports have been much deeper than that; the pride of representing one’s nation and seeing it represented on the field is ineffable and the values of sportsmanship, and respect are on display nowhere more in the world than the Pacific. 

World Rugby has lost sight of this value. Their treatment of the Pacific teams has been shameful. But what’s more it is bad strategy,

They have created a council structure where values like respect between nations and sportsmanship are designed by committee. And, ultimately, one run by its wealthiest members; a less consequential microcosm of the U.N. Security Council, if you will. 

That may be good for their bottom-line in the short-term. But as time goes by all this will do is entrench dominant teams; test the loyalty of the truest fans and make the sport more predictable and one-sided.

Have a lovely Saturday, Samoa. And God bless. 

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