For a sport which prides itself on its sense of community, rugby treads a fine line in exclusion. Talk to a rugby fan about what sets the code apart from others and the poor blighter is liable to get all misty eyed and prattle on about how it’s a game that caters for all shapes and sizes and – supposedly – people from all walks of life.
There’s an element of truth to this: anyone who has played rugby has a firsthand understanding of the unique sense of belonging and solidarity a game fosters in which 15 players at a time get to achieve a result together.
Yet for all the “world in union” rhetoric – a refrain which invariably reaches fever pitch whenever there’s a World Cup in the offing, like Japan this time around – rugby has a tradition of exclusivity, thanks to an inner circle that’s notoriously tough to break into.
By and large most of the game’s participants still come from a version of a posh school. The sport itself is globally a small one where traditionally fewer than a handful of teams have a chance to win at it; the South African example is how apartheid rendered black rugby “nonexistent” by way of decree to keep it out of mind, out of sight, a problem we’re all still wrestling.
But the worst case of exclusion in rugby has to be that of the Pacific Island nations of Fiji, Tonga and Samoa.
Rugby’s talent slush fund
Depending on who you speak to, the Pacific Islands provide between 18% and 20% of the world’s rugby playing talent. What is not debatable is that the islands, through Tonga, gave us the man recognised as the best rugby player in the world, the one and only Jonah Lomu.
The big fella isn’t the only Pacific Islands player to excel for the All Blacks (or Australia, or any of the Six Nations teams, these days). In the build-up to the World Cup, there has been no shortage of Pacific Island XVs – be it ones who played for the Wallabies or the All Blacks, or indeed those playing in Europe – doing the rounds.
The most recent examples of Tongans who have played for the All Blacks includes Charles Piutau, Doug Howlett, Malakai Fekitoa, Ngani Laumape, Lomu, Richie Mo’unga, Augustine Pulu, Isitolo Maka, Tanerau Latimer, Sione Lauaki, Vaea Fifita, Arthur Jennings, Karl Tuinukuafe, Saimone Taumoepeau and Carl Hoeft.
As serious as some of those individuals are, the Tongan, Samoan and Fijian teams have done the kind of collective damage at Rugby World Cups that demands that they be taken seriously enough to be encouraged to field the all-star teams that have been pillaged from them over the years.
Samoa made the 1995 quarterfinal that made the late four-try hero, Chester Williams, famous; Tonga were one bad bounce of the rugby ball away from an epic upset against the Springboks in 2007; and the Fijians put the fear of God into the very same Boks in the quarterfinals of the same tournament.
No place at the top table
Yet when plans for a World Rugby League – which have been shelved for the time being – were leaked a few months ago, the three teams which provide the world with a fifth of their playing resources were excluded, ostensibly on account of them not being commercially viable enough for inclusion.
Given that they are three of the most cash-strapped rugby unions in the world, with a combined population of just over a million, World Rugby’s rhetoric about growing the game rings a little hollow as long as the area isn’t a commercial powerhouse such as Japan or the United States, for instance.
It’s a snub that led former Samoan lock Dan Leo, founder of the Pacific Players’ Welfare, to encourage the Pacific Island nations to boycott the World Cup on account of being “screwed” over by World Rugby and the game having “sold its soul”.
“The sport has been built on Pacific Island muscle since it went professional,” Leo reasoned in the Irish Times. “It makes you think, as a player, what leverage do we have? The only leverage we really have is not to play.”
Leo’s main concern was the untold damage that losing the opportunity to play top-tier nations would cost the Pacific Islands: “Look, you don’t play for Fiji, Samoa or Tonga for money. You do play for exposure. I played for Samoa because I knew I was guaranteed to play against England, Scotland and Ireland. It was my shop window to get a better club contract.”
Leo’s point is backed up by tales of Pacific Islands players paying their own airfare to honour their call-ups, flying economy and earning a fraction of what their counterparts do during that time.
Club versus country
But if Joe Tekori’s sudden retirement from international rugby is anything to go by, there was no need for Pacific Islanders to boycott the World Cup because, by the looks of it, they are being put under pressure by their clubs not to play for their countries.
Tekori, a Samoan lock who plays for Toulouse, quit Samoa to focus on playing for the French club. Samoan coach Steve Jackson told the Telegraph this had become a theme in the build-up to the World Cup: “There will be speculation about players that aren’t there and it’s purely because they have made themselves unavailable. It’s pretty much club over country, which is the reality we deal with at the moment.”
Jackson also told TV New Zealand the incredible story of a player recently honouring a call-up for all of two hours before leaving the camp because his agent had called him to tell him a Japanese club had offered him a new deal.
According to the Telegraph, the method used by the wealthy European clubs to circumvent players from playing for their countries at the World Cup was to offer bonuses or contract extensions.
Shag weighs in
All Blacks coach Steve “Shag” Hansen also weighed in shortly after his team emphasised the growing gulf between Tier One and Tier Two nations by annihilating Tonga 92-7 in their final warm-up game for the World Cup.
“We have these wonderful ideas about growing the game but we don’t have an organisation at the top that wants to be strong enough to say: ‘Righto, this is what we’re doing, we’re going to have a global season’.
“The Six Nations rule World Test Rugby programmes,” he said. “They don’t want to give that up and until they’re prepared to give that up, we’re not going to see any progress in that area.”
As convenient as it is to blame World Rugby and the Six Nations for rugby’s almost systematic exclusion of the Pacific Islands, Sanzaar (South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina Rugby) has done precious little to lend a helping hand in all the time they’ve had their marquee tournaments, Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship, despite being in the region.
Instead, rugby’s governing body in the southern hemisphere has done its bit to uplift Argentina and Japan by including both in Super Rugby and the former in the Rugby Championship. The result is both teams are hoping to make it as far as the quarterfinals in Japan, the first one for the hosts.
Never a formal plan for inclusion
Quite why that helping hand has never been consistently extended to the Pacific Islands is a mystery. There were the then Tri-Nations teams’ fixtures against the Pacific Islands in 2004, and the All Blacks’ game against Samoa in Apia four years ago – which incidentally left Samoan rugby with a NZ$500 000 (just over R4.7 million) bill – but there has never been a formal plan to include them in the ongoing competitions.
An obvious answer to that would be the unrest that bedevils what passes for governance in Pacific Islands rugby.
But as Ben Ryan, who coached Fiji to their Olympic sevens gold medal in Rio three years ago said in his Guardian column: “Tonga suffers from a serious lack of governance while internal politics in Samoa has led to a high turnover of coaches and players, both of which have caused big problems for those teams … but it is now about permanent positive change, not papering over the cracks.”
Leading up to the World Cup, Fiji – the last Pacific Islands nation to make the knockout stages of the World Cup 12 years ago – led by the so-called “offloading octopus”, lock Leone Nakarawa and the explosive utility back Semi Radradra (all 1.90m and 105kg of him), were again expected to lead the charge.
This is on the back of having got the majority of what little of World Rugby’s funding makes it to the Pacific Islands and the benefit of the governing body’s “scrum factory” to shore up an age-old problem with the set piece.
As one would expect of athletes in possession of the trifecta of size, speed and skill, the Pacific Islanders will again leave audiences gasping at the sheer outrage of their gifts and wondering what could be done to ensure that they consistently play that kind of rugby.
But thanks to discrepancies in rest days between matches and financial resources, they will ultimately be no more than souped-up cannon fodder because the real thing will be reserved for the game’s usual suspects.