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: Competition Time
One area where significant process is being made is on-island opportunities. World Rugby launched the Pacific Combine this year, an event where the best players from the Pacific Challenge, which involves Fiji Warriors, Samoa A and Tonga A, were brought together for an elite training camp run by Horne.
There were fitness tests, medicals, trials – and then the coaching staff worked with PRP to place players at suitable clubs in Australia and New Zealand, the key being they had already been captured by the islands teams.
“You don’t want them to play for other international teams or it’s a waste of investment,” says Horne. “And it gives greater importance to those tournaments.
“Then we’re looking at professional environments where players can grow. Initially we want to start close to home for players who are identified, so they’re within a ‘cooee’ of the islands. It might not necessarily be about the best contract but who can help them develop and grow, who can be a good Pacific Islands mentor and so on.”
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Samoan back-row Henry Stowers headed to Western Force, Melani Matavao, the livewire scrum-half who scored four tries in Samoa’s RWC 2019 play-off against Germany, is at Otago while Fiji No 9 Frank Lomani joined the Rebels. Those are three examples of players who secured deals through the Combine, which will be rolled out in the Americas next year as well as become an annual event in the Pacific.
On top of that, Fijian Drua, the semi-pro team supported by World Rugby, compete in Australia’s National Rugby Championship. The hope is that Samoa and Tonga may have similar sides formed of on-island players involved down the line, while lots of work is being done to ensure home-based players have better facilities to train in.
That’s all in the remit of Zane Hilton, who was appointed as Samoa’s general manager for high performance in May, has moved his whole family to Apia from Australia and is even learning Samoan.
“There are a lot of raw talented people and my challenge is not to coach that out of them but to harness it and give them opportunities,” says Hilton.
“We have to be able to inspire people to play. Players leave every country but we want to show them a professional training environment they want to be part of; it has to be a cutting-edge programme so they want to stay.”
Then there are all the discussions around a Pacific Islands Super Rugby franchise. It’s been on the agenda for years but is gaining more traction – we didn’t find a single person who didn’t support the idea. Hilton points to it being a great pathway for on-islanders, Kefu would relish having more contact time with players and McKee describes it as “one of the missing pieces in the jigsaw for Pacific Islands rugby”.
There are still questions to answer, not least who would fund it and run it, but World Rugby could back it as they did Argentina’s Rugby Championship and Super Rugby inclusion – they provided A$10m – if they have evidence it would grow the game and be sustainable.