Following Rugby World's recent trip to the Pacific Islands, we celebrate the importance of the game in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga – and highlight the running battles taking place off the pitch
Pacific Islands Rugby Special Report: Talent Search
Forty teenagers are gathered outside a Fiji Rugby Union gym in Sigatoka, ready for a weights session. They are part of the Nadroga Academy. Later they will walk across to the senior team’s pitch to carry the province’s one scrum machine to their training area for a few drills. Their navy shirts feature the province’s stallion logo and that of Clermont Auvergne.
The two towns may be 17,000km apart but the French club had clearly heard about the proliferation of quality players in the area. Team manager Semi Cabenalotu likens Nadroga to the All Blacks because they’re “always winning” while U20 coach Poasa Serevi believes the huge sand dunes in Sigatoka are the reason the province does so well. He says: “Players train there and it teaches you to be tough. It trains not only the body but the mind.”
Clermont partnered with the Nadroga union seven years ago. They help fund an academy in the province, provide technical, fitness and nutritional programmes for players to follow, and coach trainers. In return, the French club gets the pick of their players each year and the provincial union receive a development fee for any signed. Alivereti Raka is one such player Clermont signed – and he looks set to represent France at international level rather than Fiji.
The programme is highly controversial but Nadroga president Jikoibau Matawalu, who is the brother of Fiji captain Akapusi Qera, says: “We don’t think it’s a bad thing. If a player from a village gets that opportunity, look at the value that comes back. The whole community benefits. This has generally been good for Fiji rugby and the players.”
He points to the fact 40 players are in the academy, studying at Cuvu College, and all get the chance to develop their skills and fitness. While Clermont take the cream of the crop, the union works to place other players with European clubs and has strong links with the military and police force to set up jobs. Plus, they’re developing better coaches.
Yet rule changes in France, where Top 14 clubs now need to have more French-qualified players in their squads, means Clermont are now looking to take players aged 17 or 18 rather than 19 or 20. Going from Fiji to France is a significant culture shock for any islander and arguably more so for a teenager.
Horne says the Nadroga arrangement undermines World Rugby’s investment and the Fiji Rugby Union’s academy structures. Pacific Rugby Players (PRP) – the players’ association for the region – have raised questions about whether the players will get the necessary support to settle in a foreign country.
The flow of players to Europe, Australia and New Zealand is not going to stop because the islands don’t have the infrastructure or finances to support professional rugby. But the fact so many send money back to their families and villages helps support the local economy.
Samoa’s Fepuleai jokes: “We turn people out like a bread factory. Our biggest export is rugby players and they send money to their families, which is why the government invests in the SRU.”
Then there are those who moved to Australia or New Zealand from the Pacific Islands when they were young as their family sought better employment options, who were born overseas but have Pacific Islands heritage, or are offered scholarships in their teens.
With all this movement of players, it’s little wonder many islanders now represent other countries. It’s hard to criticise given the higher financial rewards and many feel a strong affiliation to their new nation having spent so much of their life there.
Kefu was born in Tonga but played 60 times for the Wallabies and says: “You can’t begrudge players that. If they can do it consistently year after year they’re financially way better off. We can’t offer much financially, the only thing we can offer is playing in international games.”
Yet that falls in line with those who argue international rugby is losing its integrity. Surely representing your country is a strong incentive. Lam says: “We’re not here for the money, we’re trying to put Samoa on the map in rugby.”
McKee is hoping they can stem the flow in coming years, particularly with the new five-year residency rule (others believe it will lead to the targeting of younger players). As well as better systems to identify and track eligible players, many would like to see players able to switch from one country to an islands team. Sevens Olympics inclusion created a loophole whereby players could change allegiance by playing in qualifying events; Tim Nanai-Williams, captured by New Zealand after playing sevens, did that to qualify for Samoa and Cooper Vuna, with two Wallaby caps, did the same to represent Tonga.
It’s a complex issue – how long should they have been out of the picture with the side that captured them? What should be the caps limit? – but one the likes of Kefu want to see on the agenda.
“A three-year stand-down period should be enough (to switch) from Tier One to Tier Two,” says the Tonga coach. “Sevens makes it complicated. There are seven or eight players (currently captured by other nations) who may not play for me in this World Cup simply because Tonga’s qualifying tournament for the Olympics is likely to be after the World Cup, even though they’ve been stood down for three or four years.
“World Rugby has got to look at that because we want the best players in the World Cup. To not have Charles Piutau and others playing diminishes the fairness of the competition.”