There’s been jubilation at the news that the Pacific Island team is to join next year’s Super Rugby contest. But adding another New Zealand-based team won’t be quite as straightforward as it seems, warns Jamie Wall.
Things got a little emotional yesterday at NZ Rugby’s Auckland HQ when Sir Bryan Williams, Sir Michael Jones and Eroni Clarke got the honour of announcing that, finally, there would be a Pacific Island Super Rugby team. Usually, NZ Rugby press conferences are dull as shit (except for that one time someone hummed the Imperial March when Steve Hansen walked into the room). But being in the presence of so much All Black mana yesterday it was hard not to get swept up in the moment when the 70-year-old Williams flexed his arms above his head in celebration and declared how happy he was about the creation of Moana Pasifika. It prompted applause, a couple of hearty cheehoos and a serious sigh of relief from everyone striving to make this dream a reality.
But, while there is little debate about Moana Pasifika’s inclusion being the right thing to do, the right way of doing it is another matter entirely. Adding another New Zealand-based team into Super Rugby isn’t quite as straightforward as it seems.
Firstly, it’s pretty well known that the other teams low-key hate the idea. Especially the Blues and Chiefs, whose already precarious fanbases Moana Pasifika will presumably take a bite out of. The Blues already very much see themselves as Aotearoa’s Pasifika team anyway, which is pretty understandable considering the historical demographic of their players, plus the fact that the land they represent is home to the highest concentration of Pacific Island people in the world. They are already fighting for that patch anyway – while the Warriors haven’t played at home in over a year and a half, they still command the attention of plenty of sets of eyeballs that the Blues would rather have focused on Eden Park.
Then there’s the issue of personnel. Social media is awash with all-Sāmoan and all-Tongan XV’s that look fantastic, but the problem is most those top players are unlikely to leave their current sides, especially the ones earning a fortune in France and the UK. New Zealand’s professional rugby depth right now is looking more a paddling than diving pool, best illustrated by the Hurricanes closing out last Saturday’s loss to the Crusaders with a guy no one had ever heard of at halfback. Sir Michael Jones couldn’t help himself during his passionate speech by dropping in a nod to the noble but ultimately doomed Sunwolves, who survived on every else’s leftovers, then fought an uphill battle with both travel schedules and lack of support from the Japanese union during their brief existence as everyone’s second favourite team.
That same lack of support from national unions is what also sunk what could be considered the forerunners to Moana Pasifika. The Pacific Islanders, a combined Sāmoa/Tonga/Fiji Barbarians team, played international rugby from 2004-08 and boasted a stellar playing roster. They looked very much like a positive step in the right direction until the Sāmoan Union not altogether unfairly decided the initiative was hampering their preparation for World Cups. Is this going to manifest itself again? We’ll have to wait and see.
Of course, the most cynical among us can draw a direct comparison between the Pacific Islanders and Moana Pasifika by what NZ Rugby is getting out of it. The All Blacks and Pacific Islanders played a historic and entertaining test back in 2004, but is mostly remembered for being essentially a trial match for Sitiveni Sivivatu and Sione Lauaki, who had outstanding games for the visitors. Both were picked for the All Blacks within a year – to make it even more on the nose, debuting against Sivivatu’s native Fiji.
It’s hard not to see Moana Pasifika being viewed the same way by the current All Black coaching staff. If anything, it’s simply making the pathway for fringe players from the islands an even straighter one to a black jersey. NZ Rugby doesn’t exactly have a history of making decisions based on strong moral conviction (they had to be shamed into playing a test in Apia by John Campbell), so it’s not too much of a stretch to judge their involvement in this as, at best, a carefully balanced talent acquisition project wrapped up as a PR exercise.
But, despite all this, Moana Pasifika has to happen. Yesterday Sir Bryan Williams wryly suggested that it should have been done 25 years ago and it’s not hard to see why. The Pasifika community is massively over-represented on the rugby field, indeed a lot of that due to Williams himself and his trailblazing career in the 1970s. The rugby field has long been a pantheon of brown excellence in Aotearoa, the only weekly TV show where you can see Pasifika, Palagi and Māori men and women standing in a truly equal space.
It will be an exceptionally hard road for Moana Pasifika, that’s about the only given right now. But if it works, it will be worth the blood, sweat and tears.
Jamie Wall is a freelance sports journalist and author of five books, including The Hundred Years War: All Blacks v Springboks, on shelves in July. While his best playing days are long behind him, he can still be found battling it out on an Auckland rugby field every Saturday.