Nearly a quarter of players at the last Rugby World Cup were of Pacific Island descent. But, 23 years since the game turned professional, players born in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga still have to leave home to make a living from the sport. For Insight, RNZ Pacific’s Sports Editor Vinnie Wylie asks whether a Pacific Super Rugby team is the answer.
Greg Foe was born in Apia’s Moto’otua hospital in 1991. The second of four children, the future Manu Samoa international first picked up a rugby ball at the age of nine but didn’t play competitively until his family moved to New Zealand when he was a teenager, because at the time Samoa did not have organised teams for juniors.
The Wellington Lions loose forward represented Samoa at Sevens and ‘A’ level before making his test debut in 2016, but is still waiting for the chance to prove himself at Super Rugby level.
That goal is a step closer to reality for Foe and his fellow Pacific Island players after New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs commissioned a study into the feasibility of a Pacific based Super rugby side.
The report, carried out by accountants Crowe Horwath in December last year, concluded Super Rugby’s governing body South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Argentinian Rugby (SANZAAR) was likely to support a Pacific Island team from 2021, as it looked to expand into emerging markets, although who would come up with the $18m each year to run the team remained unresolved.
Foreign Affair Minister Winston Peters believes backing the Pacific to do well in a sport it thrives on would be good for relations.
“We have a sporting diplomacy aspect to foreign affairs in New Zealand. In fact it helps us to further prosecute the values that we have as a country but on this issue, the moment you start talking about financial backing you would have to know exactly at what level, how much and for how long – and whether a period of time they would financially self-sustainable.”
Mr Foe, 26, who juggles his rugby commitments with work as a personal trainer, said having a Super Rugby team based in the Pacific Islands would be a game-changer.
“With a lot of players they look to go overseas and having a (Super Rugby team) in the Pacific will help hopefully retain our Pacific players…which I think will help grow (rugby in) the Pacific.
“Especially from the younger players coming through. They see a lot of their idols on TV and most of their idols are playing overseas in Europe, whereas in New Zealand the All Blacks tour round…they go visit schools and hospitals and they’re the role models in their countries.
“As a Pacific Super Rugby team it would be good if it was the same for them as well – have them visit Tonga, Fiji and Samoa and having them accessible, to be able to go to schools and give back.”
Mr Foe returns home to Samoa regularly and said there was a number of local players who had the talent to make rugby a career path if given the chance.
“There’s a lot of players from Under 20s that have had massive potential and I’ve gone back and played sevens with them, I’ve gone back and played Samoa A with them, gone back and forth.
“And there’s some of them that I’ve just seen at their highest level and because there’s nothing else after Samoa A and stuff they kind of get lost in that system and then they don’t end up really getting to where I could see them go, like probably Super or Mitre 10 level, or overseas for that matter.”
“For some that’s all that they have. They’re putting all their eggs in one basket. They didn’t do well in school so sport is their out,” he said.
Mr Foe said aspiring players in Samoa regularly had to travel large distances to get to training, often held in remote fields outside villages, and to make it on time they have to be disciplined.
“They have no choice: They have to get up and catch that bus in the morning because there is certain times that the buses travel so if you miss that bus you will definitely miss training.”
With such a tight morning schedule something had to give, he said.
“Most of the boys back home they don’t have breakfast . They don’t get up and have Weetbix like we do. They get up empty stomach, drink water, go to training, do a couple of hours of hard yaka in training and then go back home.”
For many in the Pacific rugby meant a lot more than running around a muddy field with your mates on a Saturday afternoon.
“For the players back home, they’re doing it for their families, they’re doing it to hopefully get a contract overseas.
“That’s the end goal for most of those local players back home is to get a contract and be able to send money back to their families.”
Nemani Nadolo is one of the lucky ones. The Sigatoka-born, Brisbane-raised Fiji international has travelled the world making a living from the game he loves, with stints in Australia, France, England, Japan and New Zealand.
Despite enjoying his life in the south of France, where the 30-year-old Montpellier wing and his wife have recently purchased a house, Nadolo plans to move back to Fiji when he retires from playing and would jump at the chance to finish his playing career on home soil.
“We have talks around the kava bowl here in Europe and as much as it’s good (over here) guys are excited and we’ve always tossed it up, would you go back?
“You find more of the boys have put their hand up and been like,’Yeah, if an opportunity came it’d be good to go back home and play professional – be in a professional sport back home.
“Obviously with some of us guys getting on with our careers it’d be obviously good for the younger guys but if they had a few slots where they feel that they could have some experienced guys to help nurture the young guys.”
Eight years on from his test debut, the hulking winger still gets a kick out of representing his country.
“As professional sports people, whether we like it or not, we’re role models and we have an opportunity to make a difference.
“To me it was just a way of giving back and if I can go back and play for my country, I can still play at a good level here in Europe or in Super Rugby and still make a name for myself, and if I can make a little kid back in the villages back home dream then that for me is an accomplishment.”
Talk of a Pacific-based Super rugby side is now bringing that dream a little closer to reality for the next generation of Pacific rugby players.
“It’s an amazing thing when you hear about a professional team going on the island because it gives opportunities for those young guys to put a foot forward and with the Drua (team from Fiji playing in the Australian domestic competition) coming up you’ve still got those guys playing there, which is professional at a certain level.”
Former Tonga captain Inoke Afeaki spent close to two decades playing professionally in New Zealand, Japan, Wales and France.
Now settled back in Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa, the former Wellington Hurricanes lock said, while the Pacific could not compete with the money in Europe and Asia, a locally-based Super Rugby team was about much more than money.
“They might have had their fill of being overseas and it’s now time to come back and some might have ageing parents they want to be close to during their last years and have their kids know their grandparents.
“The cost of living in the islands is not too high, so you don’t have to be paid that amount of money. It’s similar to what the All Blacks have with just playing in New Zealand, rather than take say five times what they’re getting paid for the All Blacks to play at an overseas club. Those sort of soft values in life – why you do something – come into play and it’s not usually about the money.”
Discussions about the future make-up of Super Rugby and the prospects for a Pacific Island team are on-going with SANZAAR hoping to sign off on the final competition structure when it meets in London in November.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.