NZ Rugby showing no love to the Island nations

LIAM NAPIER
Last updated 05:00 01/12/2013
Jerome Kaino
IAIN MCGREGOR/Fairfax NZ
KIWI COMEBACK: Jerome Kaino in action during the 2011 World Cup.

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Romantically, the attraction is undeniable. It's a scenario many rugby enthusiasts would love to see.

An entire nation gripped for 80 minutes by the presence, aura and respect for, the revered men in black.

Unfortunately in the current climate, don't expect the All Blacks to play their first match in the Pacific Islands for 29 years.

Yes, it's been that long. And the drought won't be broken anytime soon, either.

"No, the All Blacks have not played a test in Fiji, Samoa or Tonga and right now we can't see how that's going to work in the short term," New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive Steve Tew said, bluntly.

"It's very hard to fit in and very hard to make it affordable."

From 1968 to 1984, the All Blacks played nine games in Fiji. None since, though. And not once have they collectively set foot in Samoa or Tonga.

Given how much New Zealand rugby has gained and continues to benefit from the plethora of naturally gifted Pacific Island-born athletes - Jerome Kaino, Mils Muliaina, Jerry Collins, Va'aiga Tuigamala, Josevata Rokocoko and Sitiveni Sivivatu, just to name a few - the consistent refusal to contemplate playing even a one-off match there is astonishing.

"I'd love to see the All Blacks play Tonga in Nuku'alofa; Fiji in Suva and Samoa at Apia Park. It would be a massive boost for rugby globally," Samoan stalwart Seilala Mapusua said.

"You'd have the No 1-ranked side in the world going to the Islands. It would open up everyone's eyes to the idea of playing the Island teams at home.

"There won't be any financial gains but in terms of growing the game, it would be huge.

"It's one of the few places the All Blacks could go where literally the whole country would stop for 80 minutes. It might be good for some of the boys to go home."

Scotland broke a six-year absence by quelling Fiji (37-25) and Samoa (17-16) last year, while a weakened Welsh side will tour all three Island nations in 2017, when the British & Irish Lions venture to these shores.

"We think it's right to grow the game and show respect, so we will go to the Pacific Islands. We are prepared to take the financial loss to do these tours," Wales boss Roger Lewis has said. "We feel you have to show respect on the field in test matches."

Tew points out Wales are satisfying a schedule obligation.

"There won't be any sacrifice for Wales," he said. "They're just fulfilling their responsibly to the schedule."

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Because of the June inbound tests and northern hemisphere tours in November, the schedules don't ever require the All Blacks to follow their European contenders.

To be fair, the NZRU do assist the Islands. The Oceania Federation is run out of their offices in Wellington and New Zealand coaches also work on development projects.

Where the argument becomes a little cynical, though, is instead of promoting the game in Japan this year and the United States next year, the All Blacks could, just once, play in the Islands en route to Europe.

"It's not on the way. We would have to fly to and from the Islands before going to Europe," Tew said.

"The only defence we have is that we have made a decision that we think is in the best interests of New Zealand rugby and that's for the All Blacks to play in Japan on the way to Europe this year to do our bit for developing the game where the World Cup is going to be staged in five years.

"We've got a considerable amount of credit from the IRB for doing that. As a consequence we managed to play a young side in a full test match, and we've done some very good commercial work for our partners who help make the game work in this country.

"I don't make any apologies for that.

"We think we can play a game in the USA [next year]. It's not yet confirmed. We don't have the opposition we want in place and we don't have a venue yet. It will tick exactly the same boxes as Japan did."

A complication during the pre-November tour slot is Island nations may struggle to get their best players out of clubs, as it's not an IRB-sanctioned window.

"It's not dismissed as never going to happen," Tew adds. "It's just very hard to see how we will get to the Islands in the near future in the current programme.

"If it doesn't work commercially, then I've got problems back home to resolve.

"While I was away I had at least six inquiries about the All Blacks playing in other countries, some of them pretty diverse. Right now everybody wants to have a crack at hosting the All Blacks in their part of the world because it is the brand to drive the profile of the game."

And so, the Islands wait for a tectonic shift in policy.

ALL BLACKS TESTS AGAINST ISLAND NATIONS

Samoa: 5 since 1993 - last test 2008, 101-14

Tonga: 4 since 1999 - last 2011 RWC, 41-10

Fiji: 5 since 1987 - last 2011, 60-14

ALL BLACKS GAMES IN THE ISLANDS

Samoa: 0; Tonga: 0; Fiji: 9 since 1968. Last in 1984

- © Fairfax NZ News

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