Rugby World Cup: The sad truth about the Pacific nations

2:11 pm on 27 September 2019

Opinion - You don't want to take anything away from Uruguay... but.

Fiji's centre Jale Vatubua (C) is tackled by Juan Manuel Cat (L) and flanker Santiago Civetta (R).

Fiji's centre Jale Vatubua (C) is tackled by Uruguay's Juan Manuel Cat (L) and flanker Santiago Civetta (R) in their 2019 Rugby World Cup clash. Photo: AFP or licensors

Their 30-27 Pool D win over Fiji wasn't about them. As people, yes we can all imagine their joy. The fulltime tears shed by Uruguay captain Juan Manuel Gaminara were genuinely affecting, but joy wasn't my immediate emotion.

This was a time for anger and disgust, for sadness. A moment when your worst fears about Pacific rugby were realised.

Again, good on Uruguay, but this is not a time for World Rugby to rejoice. No, they should feel utterly ashamed at how Fiji, Tonga and Samoa have been allowed to slide into mediocrity and irrelevance.

Sure, we Tier One nations will happily cherry-pick players who are eligible for those teams and qualify them for ours. We'll sign them to our clubs, but only on the proviso that they're then unavailable for international duty.

We'll never play in Suva or Nuku'alofa. If we're New Zealand, and a broadcaster shames us into it, then maybe we'll go to Apia. But otherwise we'll use the rich rugby resources of those nations to supplement our own.

Is that a fair summary or am I being a bit harsh? Perhaps I should've mentioned how the All Blacks also cynically select players of Pacific descent for a Test or two, safe in the knowledge they'll never become regulars in the team.

Yes, that player does then have 'All Black' on his CV, but the bottom line is a potential 50-Test career for Samoa or Tonga is over before it even began.

We, as New Zealand Rugby, will then turn around and say it's such a shame that so and so can't play for the Pacific nation of their heritage. Forgetting, of course, that it was selection in the All Blacks which precluded that.

Never mind the people who say 'but Fiji were so competitive against Australia'. The Wallabies are rubbish and here were Fiji being asked to back-up from that game just four days later.

Little wonder they were a bit slow out of the blocks against Uruguay. Big, well-resourced teams such as New Zealand can absorb such a tight turnaround, but not the smaller ones.

The frustration here is that, with access to the right competitions and to all their elite players, these tiny Pacific nations would be better than most teams. Scotland certainly, but arguably Wales, Argentina and Ireland as well. Definitely Australia and Italy.

Instead we marginalise them. Leave them to battle it out with the Canadas and USAs of the world, leaving them ripe for Uruguay's picking.

Frank Halai during his sole appearance for the All Blacks in 2013.

Frank Halai is a prime example of a player who represented the All Blacks once and never again. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Fiji's defeat wasn't a shock or an upset. It was actually nothing but a sad inevitability.

It's certainly not a great moment in Rugby World Cup history. Quite the opposite in fact.

All we want from world cups is to see the best playing the best. For every team to have the opportunity to be at full strength and to compete equally against one another.

Well, with the best will in the world, this Rugby World Cup looks nothing like that.

There are three elite teams: New Zealand, South Africa and England. Ireland almost deserve that status, but have never progressed past a world cup quarterfinal and look unlikely to do so this time either.

Even if you indulge Ireland, and include them in the big four, you've still got 16 teams who you'd classify somewhere between average and awful. For some, merely being average is an achievement and you commend them accordingly.

In the case of Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, though, there's the potential to be thrilling, to be outstanding. To shock the world and upset the status quo, just as Samoa did in their tournament debut way back in 1991.

Wow, what we wouldn't give to see that Samoa side here now.

Sadly, if the last 28 years are anything to go by, that potential will never be realised. There's simply too many other nations with too much to lose.

Good on Uruguay. Beating Fiji represents a truly great day in their rugby history. For the world game, though, it's a day of sadness.

A time to reflect on the disservice that's been done to the Pacific Islands sides and to assume that things might only get worse.

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