10 Oct 2020

Super Rugby: Cut NZR some slack over Pasifika side

11:19 am on 10 October 2020

Opinion: It has been 25 years since Samoa last made a Rugby World Cup quarterfinal. Whose fault is that?

Samoan Siva Tau before Russia v Samoa, Rugby World Cup 2019 at Kumagaya Stadium, Saitama, Japan.

Samoan Siva Tau before Russia vs Samoa during the 2019 Rugby World Cup match at Kumagaya Stadium in Saitama, Japan. Photo: Photosport

New Zealand Rugby (NZR) appear to be to blame for most things lately, so are they responsible?

Or is it World Rugby? Australia? Rich French, English and Japanese clubs? Samoa's own union? Who?

There isn't a rugby person anywhere that wouldn't like to see a Pasifika side admitted to Super Rugby Aotearoa. But, again, who is responsible for the fact there won't be one in 2021?

Plenty of folk have marked out the long run in recent days and come charging in to have a go at NZR over this Pasifika issue and ordinarily I'd join them.

You can accuse NZR of all sorts of things and, believe me, I've tried. But the fact they've not admitted a Pasifika team to next year's Super Rugby competition isn't arrogant or cruel, as has been suggested by some people.

In case anyone's missed it, NZR are not made of money.

In fact, they're really scrambling to sustain the All Blacks and five Super Rugby sides they've already got, not to mention our men's and women's sevens sides and the Black Ferns 15s team, along with the various age-group and provincial programmes they're responsible for as well.

It's not been a particularly impressive 12 months for NZR, on various fronts. If there's been a flawed way to do something, they've invariably found it.

People, including myself, have been quick to point out the national body's faults and rightly so, but they're not wrong all the time.

Not admitting a Pasifika team to Super Rugby for 2021 was the right decision, not least because NZR don't have the money to pay for it.

People can pick all the Pacific dream teams they like and waffle on about how much such a side would bring to the competition.

No-one, from NZR on down, is disputing that a Pasifika franchise isn't overdue or a good idea.

All the national body are saying is that it would have a better chance of succeeding if its launch was delayed until 2022.

Teams aren't built in a day, or even the few months between now and the start of the 2021 Super season. It takes time to build the infrastructure around a franchise and design uniforms and logos, appoint management and coaches, find and fund players and training venues and equipment.

We seem to expect NZR to rob Peter to pay Paul here and, in the words of NZR chairman Brent Impey, "cannibalise'' the existing Super Rugby sides.

By simply taking a breath and setting our sights on 2022, we can ensure the proposed Pasifika team enters Super Rugby well-funded and well-resourced and ready to compete for the title, without compromising NZR's finances or the position of the other franchises.

If that's cruel and arrogant, I'll eat my hat.

The other issue here is that this isn't being viewed in isolation. Instead it's being used as the latest evidence of New Zealand's long neglect of Samoa, specifically, but also Pacific rugby in general.

Should the All Blacks be playing in Apia, Nuku'alofa and Suva every year? Probably.

Manu Samoa rugby team performs the siva tau ahead of their match against the All Blacks in Apia

Manu Samoa rugby team performs the siva tau ahead of their match against the All Blacks in Apia in 2015. Photo: RNZI / Autagavaia Tipi Autagavaia

Is it shameful that tests against Samoa and Tonga and Fiji aren't at least staples of the All Blacks' home schedule? Absolutely.

We're all disappointed that Samoa's emergence as a potential international rugby superpower in the early 1990s didn't eventuate.

There's no doubt that rugby, as a global game, would have benefited from having a strong Samoa.

Fiji, for all their talent, have only qualified for world cup quarterfinals in 1987 and 2007, while Tonga have never emerged from pool play.

Is that NZR's fault? Is it?

The sight of Samoan, Fijian and Tongan players representing other countries is now commonplace, but is anyone holding Australia or France or England or Japan or the United States to account for the decline of international rugby in the Pacific islands?

Ireland midfielder Bundee Aki was born in Auckland to Samoan parents.

Ireland midfielder Bundee Aki was born in Auckland to Samoan parents. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

And how would having a Pasifika side play Super Rugby in 2021 arrest that?

It's terribly disappointing that players of Pacific heritage who've played test rugby for teams such as the All Blacks can't then opt to represent the nation of their or their parents' birth. That's something NZR have lobbied for at various times without success, but would undoubtedly increase the competitiveness of Samoa and so on. So whose fault is it that those plans haven't come to fruition?

It's not hard to find sticks to beat NZR with. In fact, I find myself doing that most weeks.

But they're also not to blame for every ill in the game and not obliged to grant every wish that comes their way.

There will be a Pasifika side in Super Rugby one day, but it won't be to NZR's shame if that day doesn't come until 2022.

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