17 May 2019

Sport: Rapid Rugby hopes to lift Pacific game to new levels

4:07 pm on 17 May 2019

The man in charge of Global Rapid Rugby says they want to help Pacific Island nations become genuine World Cup contenders.

The Fijian Latui and Kagifa Samoa will square off in their competitive debut in Lautoka on Saturday, in the first match of the Pacific Showcase Series, which also features the Western Force.

Rapid Rugby's Head of Rugby, Matt Hodgson, said they are excited to take the competition into the Pacific and want to help grow rugby in the region.

"Everyone can attest to how much quality of rugby there is in the Pacific," he said. "And I think there's no better way of keeping that talent at home or actually showing a pathway there for the players that play club rugby, junior rugby there to grow into play for the [Flying Fijians] or Manu Samoa or the Tongan side in a World Cup."

Matt Hodgson made his first test start in the Wallabies shock loss to Samoa in 2011.

Matt Hodgson made his first test start in the Wallabies shock loss to Samoa in 2011. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

A former Western Force flanker, Hodgson was a part of the Wallabies team beaten by Manu Samoa in Sydney eight years ago and witnessed first hand the potential of rugby in the Pacific region.

"I was lucky enough to make by debut against Fiji, play against Samoa but then also I played two years on the sevens circuit so I got actually to know quite well the Fijian and Samoan sides," he said.

"So I think there's some great rugby people there but I think it's also the brand and the product of rugby that they play it's what we want to tap into and how do we get Australian teams or Asian teams playing with that love of the game."

Representative teams from Fiji, Samoa and Tonga were first invited to play exhibition games against the Western Force last year, as part of the hastily arranged "World Series Rugby", after the Force were axed from Super Rugby, with plans to launch a full-scale Asia-Pacific competition in 2019.

The Western Force celebrate a try against Tonga A.

The Western Force celebrate a try against Tonga A. Photo: Facebook/Western Force

Eight teams from Australia, Asia and the Pacific Islands were originally on board to contest the inaugural Global Rapid Rugby competition from March this year.

That number dropped to six before the inaugural season was cancelled in January, with the Asia and Pacific Showcase Series' filling the void before officials try again in 2020.

"Obviously last year was Perth-centric and all about getting players and games within Western Australia and through that we saw the potential of going into both the Asian and Pacific markets," Hodgson said.

"So this year we're taking it to the next step where we've got two Showcase Series...and then we can transport that into a full tournament next year which is pretty exciting and hopefully we can include the likes of Fiji and Samoa in that."

Western Force owner Andrew Forrest is the man behind Global Rapid Rugby.

Western Force owner Andrew Forrest is the man behind Global Rapid Rugby. Photo: AFP

Rapid Rugby has the backing of the powers-that-be at World Rugby, New Zealand Rugby and Rugby Australia, while the Fiji and Samoa Rugby Unions are both involved with their respective franchises.

The format includes a number of modified rules intended to speed up the game and make it more exciting for fans, including 35 minutes halves, no gain in ground when kicking directly to touch and nine point "power tries" for attacks launched from within a team's own 22.

"The biggest rule I'm seeing most reward from is the no kicking out on the full," said Hodgson.

"I think it's an element of the game that was too much of a safety barrier for teams coming outside their own 22, so already at the moment in the Asia (Showcase Series) we're averaging ten less lineouts per game which is exciting because the ball is in play a lot longer."

Kagifa Samoa features a mix of players from Samoa, New Zealand and Tonga, while the Fijian Latui squad is all locally based and features the bulk of the Drua team that won last year's Australian National Rugby Championship, including captain Mosese Voka and fellow Flying Fijians internationals Frank Lomani, Eroni Mawi and Mesulame Dolokoto.

Latui head coach Senirusi Seruvakula believes the emphasis on attacking rugby will suit his players.

Drua coach, Senirusi Seruvakula

Senirusi Seruvakula. Photo: Fiji Rugby

"That's how the Drua played last year, running rugby from the 22 to the tryline and that's one of the new rules in Rapid Rugby: if you run the ball in multiple phases from the 22 you get nine points straight away," he said.

"So that's a new challenge for the team and the players they needed to be really fit mentally and physically. There's a lot of running and a lot of skill level that has to be seen from the players."

Pacific Rugby Players CEO Aayden Clarke said the Pacific leg, which features home and away matches between the Fijian Latui, Kagifa Samoa and Western Force, is good news for local players hoping to press their case for World Cup selection.

"It's all about more opportunity for Pacific Island players," he said. "Our role as an association is to support the (national) unions to make that happen, so it's nothing but good to see more professional contracts on offer either in the short term but also building towards whatever Rapid Rugby looks like in 2020."

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Photo: Facebook

Matt Hodgson said their hope is that long term Rapid Rugby teams in the Pacific can also help boost the region's success on the international stage.

"Our goal is not only to grow the game in that area, return players back to their homeland but then also increase the professionalism to make tier two nations [more competitive on the global stage] and even one day win a World Cup."

Matt Hodgson said, with a full Rapid Rugby competition is due to launch in 2020, adding a standalone team from Tonga also remains a possibility going forward.

"It was just a timing issue and trying to get things aligned and to launch by certain dates and it was probably difficult from our end but also Tonga's end to get to a certain point by a certain time," he said. "But we do have conversations open with Tonga at the moment moving forward, which is exciting, and working with the likes of Toutai Kefu ('Ikale Tahi coach) and the others within Tonga."

The Fijian Latui, Kagifa Samoa and Western Force will play each other home and away over the next six weeks, with matches being hosted in Lautoka, Perth and Auckland.

Travel and accommodation costs for all teams are paid by Global Rapid Rugby with teams left to pick up the tab for general running costs and player wages.