A host of Pacific rugby players face an uncertain future after the Global Rapid Rugby competition cancelled its inaugural season, less than two months before the proposed start date.
The brainchild of billionaire Western Force owner Andrew Forrest, eight teams from Australia, Asia and the Pacific Islands were originally on board to contest a four-month season in 2019, including entries representing Fiji and Samoa.
Pacific Rugby Players CEO Aayden Clarke said that number had dropped to six, after two teams pulled out.
He was in contact with Global Rapid Rugby officials only a few days ago, to discuss player welfare issues for the impending campaign, but said yesterday it was revealed the competition would not go ahead at all.
"We are disappointed because so much has been promised by GRR, but they have failed to deliver," he said.
"The big losers in this are the players who have made commitments to their team and GRR, they have given up work, made family decisions and passed up other contract opportunities, but are now left high and dry.
"There are 30 contracted players in Singapore who have been training since January specifically for this competition, there are many players in Fiji and Samoa who made commitments to this. So what happens to them now?"
"The look on a young Tongan player's face today when I told him the professional contract he had planned to start in February is now cancelled, was quite gut-wrenching," revealed Clarke.
"I had to break the bad news to him because I know he was looking forward to being part of the Samoan franchise and that means to him it's missing out on a professional contract for six months and he returns back to playing club rugby in New Zealand.
"There's real loss from a human level when things like this go wrong and probably, from our perspective, what we're so disappointed in is that there's been a lot of promises and really no delivery and, as you know, there's a cost to that."
In a statement published on Thursday, Global Rapid Rugby admitted they simply ran out of time to deliver what had been promised.
"Since gaining World Rugby approval to stage an elite-level competition in mid-November last year, the Rapid Rugby management team has worked to ensure the inaugural home-and-away season provides the very best on and off-field sport and entertainment.
"That tight time frame and the intricacies of a World Cup year have led to a decision to commence the inaugural 8-team, 56 game home-and-away season in 2020."
Aayden Clarke acknowledged Global Rapid Rugby had been on shaky ground for a while but, with backing from World Rugby, Rugby Australia and New Zealand Rugby, there was still an expectation the competition would go ahead.
"There has been no lack of support from the various franchises, World Rugby and us player's associations to try make this competition happen and to work with GRR. We have invested a huge amount of time dealing with teams, players, contracts and agents and attempting to have a collaborative approach to ironing out the many of the frustrations of how this competition has been organised - but to no avail."
"Many offered the opinion to GRR that they should wait till 2020 to start and provide a long runway to prepare properly but instead it was pushed for 2019 and then cancelled at the last minute."
Organisers remain bullish
A series of exhibition matches are scheduled to be be held throughout Asia, the Pacific Islands and Australasia this year, with the competition proper now slated to begin in 2020, and Andrew Forrest remained confident over GRR's long-term prospects.
"In 2019, fans are going to get a real feel for how the entertainment experience we pioneered in Australia last year will evolve throughout the Asia Pacific. It will form a runway for the launch of an even bigger investment in 2020, once strong broadcasting arrangements are in place," he said.
"Making Rapid Rugby a reality has required a considerable amount of courage and determination. That determination, and our vision, has not changed. The strategy required to realise it requires a strong foundation."
Pacific players in the dark
Up to 50 Pacific Islands players were in line to earn professional contracts as part of Global Rapid Rugby.
Pacific Rugby Players CEO Aayden Clarke said it was now left to his organisation and the national unions in Fiji and Samoa to pick up the pieces.
"The Pacific Rugby Players association will now focus on mopping this up and being on hand to support the players who have had the rug pulled out from under them," he said.
"Many players are now unsure about their immediate rugby future and them and their families will need support. Let's hope that some sort of skeleton competition can happen this year and players confidence in GRR can increase enough to stay involved and roll out properly in 2020".
"There are players who now have to have hard conversations with their families and wives about needing to find a new job and what next for their careers - and it's not their fault. If you set an ambitious goal of beginning a revolutionary competition, then you have to have the capability to fulfil promises," Clarke said.
"We have players who are devastated that this competition has been cancelled for 2019. While people focus on the commercial and logistical challenges, there is a human impact here which is more important."
Aayden Clarke said the two Pacific teams were ready to go, with the Samoan franchise to play home games in New Zealand and Australia while the Fijian team would have complimented the Fijian Drua, who are the reigning Australian NRC champions.
"For a player playing for the Drua team and then for the La Tui, which would be the franchise name for Rapid Rugby, we are effectively getting close to on-island players being full-time rugby players, working through what that looks like, the implications for the players and now that's just not going to happen, which is a huge disappointment," he said."
"We all want this competition to succeed and to provide the entertainment the game needs. Hopefully in the future it will. But there are the very basics of a rugby competition like effective administration, player contracting, travel and accommodation that need to be nailed before you worry about fireworks, parachutes and cheerleaders.
"Unfortunately, we feel that possibly the priorities got a bit mixed up in the preparation of the GRR tournament"