21 Jul 2020

Pasifika Super Rugby bids urged to work with national unions

3:23 pm on 21 July 2020

A Pacific Island Super Rugby team has never looked more likely but prospective franchisees are being urged to work with the national unions in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.

New Zealand Rugby released the findings of the Aratipu Report on Friday, which recommended a Pasifika team be included in a revamped Super competition from next year.

Tonga A were no match for Fiji Warriors in this year's World Rugby Pacific Challenge.

A Pasifika Super Rugby team has never been closer to reality. Photo: World Rugby/Zoomfiji

Pacific Rugby Players CEO Aayden Clarke said, while there was still a lot of water to go under the bridge, the signs were promising.

"I know New Zealand Rugby's appetite is really high at the moment, which I commend them on," he said.

"We've been encouraging them around really playing a leadership role for World Rugby in terms of supporting and providing opportunities for the Pacific and that seems to be happening."

The prospect of a Pasifika Super Rugby side followed confirmation a Pacific Island-owned team had received provisional approval to play in North America's Major League Rugby competition from next year.

Kanaloa Hawaii Rugby, whose backers included five former All Blacks, had also held discussions with New Zealand Rugby about the possibility of joining the new-look Super Rugby competition.

Kanaloa CEO Tracy Atiga said that most sporting clubs were driven by money but Kanaloa Hawaii intended to pioneer a new approach based on Maori and Pasifika values.

"The world hasn't seen a club or a team that's been delivered through a village ethos," she told Kathryn Ryan on Nine to Noon.

"We know that the benefits of village ethos is that our players will actually be more comfortable and more willing to perform at that higher level, more comfortable in that space, so what we're excited about is actually the performance level that comes out of this.

"Nobody's actually seen a team that's been delivered with a Maori/Pasifika lens of coaching ethos, a cultural aspect to it."

Aayden Clarke has held discussions with NZ Rugby and Kanaloa Hawaii and said this is the best chance the Pacific Islands have ever had of securing a Super Rugby team.

"I think there's a number of parties, if there is a slot or opportunity opened up for that team, who are interested in terms of running that operation and then financing that operation, which is another discussion," he said.

"But the best thing from our perspective is...because of the blank canvas that's been thrown in front of all of us that we could have Pacific Island team in that professional competition. We know that it's the right thing to do but also there's a talent base across the world that's more than enough for that team."

Pacific Rugby Players CEO Aayden Clarke.

Pacific Rugby Players CEO Aayden Clarke. Photo: RNZ Pacific/Vinnie Wylie

A previous bid to base a Super Rugby team in Fiji fell over in 2018 after failing to attract enough financial support.

Tracy Atiga said their Major League Rugby franchise is a multi-million dollar commitment and the ownership has received huge interest from investors that would enable them to operate separate teams in the MLR and Super Rugby.

Aayden Clarke said a private group is entitled to work as it sees fit but urged any prospective owners to establish strong links with the Samoa, Fiji and Tonga Rugby Unions.

"Our message is pretty clear: regardless of who's leading these types of organisations or doing feasibility studies is that the three nationals really need to be consulted," he said.

"What level that looks like, what involvement that looks like - ownership, governance - I'm not quite sure yet but we fully believe that to get the best result that they have to have some sort of say in this organisation."

"It would be a shame if a franchise opportunity like this isn't leveraged to its maximum to make sure that it has high performance benefits for those regions because we know how important they are to rugby across the world, and to use any franchise opportunity, be it in Hawaii or American or New Zealand for instance, we want to ensure that it means those teams are arriving at a World Cup even stronger than they are now."

Tracy Atiga told Nine to Noon Kanaloa Hawaii staff were all paid the same hourly rate, including the CEO, and their focus is on people, not profit.

"When it comes time to performing for their national side for example - if a player makes the Samoa Rugby Union national team for World Cup, we are actually backing our players to go and to leave," Atiga said.

"That's suicide for other people. If you look at a French club for example: if their team has made a final or a semi final they will not let their players leave and the reason is because they want to win that championship. Professionalism has done that."

Speaking to RNZ Pacific last week, she said Kanaloa Hawaii Rugby was intending to reach out to the Pacific Island unions in the coming days.

"The reason why we haven't [yet] is because we understand it's really important for us to secure the licence and to secure the schedule and to have everything in place before we even try to reach out to our unions," she said.

"We've worked with these rugby unions before with other things - myself and my colleagues have actually all provided services voluntarily over the years for many Pacific Island nations, so we have those personal commitments and connections with staff there."