New Zealand’s historic trip to Samoa must herald a change in the tour mindset, says RW’s Alan Pearey
It took 91 years but at least New Zealand finally got there. July’s short hop to Apia saw them break new ground by playing a Test in Samoa, an occasion that prompted a public holiday for the islanders and a combative match watched by a capacity crowd wreathed in smiles.
It was a day when the result was secondary as here was the world’s greatest team connecting with a Tier Two nation on their own soil. The All Blacks wore leis of flowers and learnt a bit more about the heritage of many of their own players, and it begged the question: why not do this more often?
For the sad truth is that the pro era has seen too few such initiatives, even though air travel has shrunk the world compared to the days when teams needed a six-week sea voyage to cross hemispheres.
Australia and South Africa have never visited Samoa. No Rugby Championship side has been to Tonga. Fiji have fared a bit better, with Aussie and NZ Maori XVs making sporadic visits to Suva, but the log book makes shameful reading. The big European nations have all played in each of those Pacific Islands.
Australia, 36% of whose Super Rugby players derive from the Islands, are now making positive noises about following suit and it’s an idea that excites the players. “It would be special,” said Wallaby David Pocock. “Australia and New Zealand, in terms of rugby, have benefited a ridiculous amount from Pacific Island nations.”
But why stop at individual countries? The Lions have played in Argentina, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Canada and Fiji, the latter trip in 1977 bringing a 25-21 loss and the Fran Cotton quip: “Why couldn’t it have been 14 weeks in Fiji and three days in New Zealand?”
Fiji is the only place the Lions have visited without Test success and how fitting had the 2017 tourists tried to rectify that fact on the way to New Zealand, instead of declining Fiji’s invitation as they were “too busy”.
Of course, money is the obstacle. NZ made no profit from their Samoa trip, and Wales will lose cash when touring the Islands in two years’ time. Good for them. They’re doing it for the greater good and rugby needs more of that selflessness.