Pacific Rugby Players chair Hale T-Pole eyes ambitious plans – but questions arise over the best use of existing avenues

The plan for Moana Pasifika ‘capture’ of Tongan and Samoan stars

Radical plans are being discussed for young players who qualify for Tonga or Samoa to be ‘captured’ for either Test union if they play for the new, New Zealand-based, Pacific talent-focused Super Rugby franchise, Moana Pasifika. That’s according to Hale T-Pole, chairman of the Pacific Rugby Players union, who believes it’s time to stop “tiptoeing around issues as Fiji and Samoa and Tonga keep falling behind” in the world game.

“We pitched it to Moana Pasifika,” T-Pole explains to Rugby World of the plan to stop talent defecting to other nations. “They agree with the idea but obviously the whole conversation has to be agreed by them. Through the home unions and World Rugby we have discussed this. It’s a long process and it’s going to be an ongoing conversation for the next year or two, but it’s been verbally supported by everyone involved.

“We’ve got a limited window to jump on this and embrace it, to uplift Tonga and Samoa and Fiji. If slight opportunities come up we jump on it and we pitched this to Moana Pasifika and World Rugby. It’s obviously supported by Tonga and Samoa massively, because the Drua (the new Fijian side to enter Super Rugby) are in the same boat. If they are going to (capture) players through the Drua, I can’t see why Moana can’t too.”

Issues of eligibility will be a major talking point in November, as World Rugby’s Council meet next month. All indications are the governing body will bring the topic to the forefront of many discussions. Meanwhile, the lobby to relax the restrictions on players previously capped by major nations moving to another team they qualify for is growing in voice.

However, the plans T-Pole are discussing here would represent another unexpected and significant step away from the current norm, if it came off.

Moana Pasifika 'capture'

Tonga and Samoa face-off in July (Getty Images)

As it stands, nations can use their Test side, sevens outfit and designated ‘A team’ to capture stars. While, hypothetically, the Fijian Rugby Union making the Drua their designated A team looks more straightforward as they are a Fiji-focused side, Moana Pasifika represents a bigger challenge as they potentially represent two nations in terms of eligibility (Tonga and Samoa), while being based in a third, New Zealand.

“The guys who run World Rugby are very, very legally attuned,” says Geoff Webster, who served as general manager of high performance with Fiji between 2016 and the end of 2019. “What effectively (the proposed change) is saying is that professional rugby teams, purporting to represent a demographic, can now become a capturing team.

“The regulations don’t allow it and they would need to change the regs. I don’t think that they can do it (at least not easily). I just think the precedent that sets is going to open a can of worms and basically then says, well, if a Super Rugby team in Moana can do it, can the Crusaders now do it?

“I’m not sure there aren’t going to be some unintended consequences that could then impact the Pacific Islands even more, down the track. Teams could start recruiting young Islanders with immunity, knowing that the precedent has been set for a capturing team. There could be hundreds of Pacific Islanders then captured for other countries moving forward.

“Is it a solution? Sure. But I’m not sure it’s the right solution because they’re not using the mechanisms that exist currently.”

Related: Scotland team to face Tonga

Webster’s main point is that there are A team options in place for Pacific powers through the World Rugby Pacific Challenge. Webster makes no bones about how Fiji used that competition during his time there, saying: “We were the only country that seemed to use it for it for what it should have been, and we couldn’t care less about winning it. I used it completely to capture (young) players.”

He gives the example of teenage lock Janeiro Wakeham (who is registered in some places at 6ft 9in, but Webster says is 6ft 8in), who recently signed on with Stade Francais’ espoirs section. Webster says the youngster was identified at 14, and they managed to capture him when he was 17. Now he is off to learn the tools of his trade while putting his massive frame through the French game.

As Webster surmises: “There has not been a Pacific Challenge or A team mechanism to do it the last two years (due to Covid), but it will eventually come back. We got off our bums and used the existing criteria to qualify guys. Clearly Fiji are not as desperate and are not faced with the same level of challenge that Tonga and Samoa are in terms of the quantity and quality of players that have pledged in play for other countries. But is this the solution?”

Moana Pasifika 'capture'

Fijian Drua celebrate winning the NRC Grand final, 2018 (Getty Images)

T-Pole is aware of the potential of the A team programmes and makes clear that there is nothing set in stone with the Moana Pasifika proposal. He also still supports players’ dreams of playing for the All Blacks and Wallabies, if they qualify for multiple nationalities in the region and believe it is the best way to provide for their families.

However, he insists it’s time to start getting movement on the fringes of those elite sides, where dual-qualified talents who could really help out the Island nations might be waiting and waiting for a chance that may never come.

He also sees young talents taking the well-beaten path to Japan’s junior system and laments how that could end up being the best option for some ambitious players. At the very least, he hopes club sides in other countries are willing to work with the Pacific unions to safeguard the rights for athletes to work in one country and freely play for their home nation.

As for the big World Rugby meeting in November, where eligibility and changing national allegiance will be under the microscope, T-Pole says: “Meaningful change is easier said than done, eh! They’ll go over the rules again and we’ve presented a good case. So hopefully, with eligibility rules, they get some sense into decision-making. We have to try something. We keep tiptoeing around issues as Fiji and Samoa and Tonga keep falling behind.”

Until then, the talks carry on.

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