Should the All Blacks play away tests against Pacific Island teams?
OPINION: Sometimes, even in the venal, selfish world of professional sport, you just have to do the right thing by the kids.
On Monday night Henry Stowers and Jackson Garden-Bachop played in the World Junior Championship. One represented Samoa, one represented New Zealand. It could have been the other way round. The two were best mates at Scots College. They love their rugby. Just what must they think of the fact that the All Blacks have never played a test in Samoa.
There were kids all over the North Harbour pitch with hearts that come from a Pacific home. Tevita Li, the likely star of the tournament, is of Tongan blood, like Jonah Lomu and Israel Folau. Nathaniel Apa, who is playing for Samoa, represented New Zealand schools last year.
The Baby Blacks are full of teenagers who have families from the islands. The mix of Pacific, Maori and Pakeha is a potent one, the lifeblood of the All Blacks. And yet the national union pleads poverty as an excuse for not playing in Samoa.
Greed would be the more apposite word. Even John Key, the champion of monetary morality and currently touring Samoa, reckons we should give them a game. But Steve Tew, the chief executive of the NZRU, says there is no room in the calendar.
This is not true. Two years ago the NZRU signed a shirt deal with AIG. Suddenly there was room in the calendar for a test in Japan and a test in America, two markets where AIG have strong interests. You can be sure that if AIG was selling a lot of valuable policies to Samoa, the All Blacks would be over there next week.
The NZRU's position gives it a problem. It is very difficult to argue for the global game, to go to the IRB and ask for an international window in July "for the good of the players", when you are clearly, like England, France and the rest of the mob, motivated by self-interest.
The northern hemisphere nations can turn round and say, "If you are so interested in the global game why have you never played a test in Samoa? Why have you only played five international matches against an island neighbour that started playing 90 years ago? We, England, Scotland and Wales, have each played more games against Samoa than you have. Shame on you."
But the NZRU doesn't want to promote international rugby in Samoa. The NZRU want economic migrants from the islands who come up through New Zealand's colonial rugby programmes. The NZRU takes the bodies, moulds them, keeps the best, and lets Samoa choose from the reject pile. If Samoa achieved economic autonomy then there might be a genuine exchange programme and that would not be good for All Blacks' pre-eminence.
That's all very well, but it gives New Zealand zero moral authority in the global game. In 2003 this country lost co-hosting rights to the World Cup because it refused to remove its sponsors' names from its stadia. In 2011, when hosting the Cup, Steve Tew threatened to withdraw from the 2015 tournament if restitution was not made for lost income.
This was disingenuous because New Zealand makes a heap of extra cash from all the sponsorship leverage that comes with being world champions. New Zealand just wanted to dip into the IRB pot that distributes money to the global game. The NZRU wanted to take the crumbs off its Pacific neighbours' tables.
The NZRU further forfeited any moral authority when it took money from AIG. "This is a great day for New Zealand rugby," said Tew. "Today's announcement is a game changer."
He was literally right there as the forthcoming test against the USA in Chicago testifies. But it was also dirty money. AIG were fined over a billion dollars in 2006 for the financial equivalent of match fixing. A couple of years later, broken and bust, they were given the biggest bail out in US history, a staggering 182 billion US dollars.
The financial reality is that the All Blacks are being part paid by American citizens. And yet AIG trumpeted, "Just as the All Blacks never give up during a game, AIG never gives up on its clients."
Excuse me and pass the sick bag. AIG gave up on every one of its clients. The American taxpayer bailed them out. And now they are bailing out New Zealand rugby. If I were a Chicago tax payer, I would want free entry to the All Blacks game as a part owner of the team.
So when Steve Tew says, "All we want is what is best for world rugby," Samoa, Tonga, Fiji and the rest of us fall about laughing.
The Samoan prime minister asked for a test match against the Blacks to celebrate the island's 50th anniversary of its independence. REJECTED. Su'a William Sio, MP for Mangere, has written to Tew and the NZRU, offering to help look for sponsors to underwrite a game. Why not ask AIG. Tell them it's American Samoa.
Meanwhile, in a community near you, the sons and daughters of Samoan immigrants are working for the good of the game. Earl Va'a, Samoa's top points scorer, is coaching at Scots, where Garden-Bachop and Stowers came together as friends.
It seems symbolic, doesn't it. Stowers, the best forward on the pitch on Monday night, nephew of George, Samoan captain; Garden-Bachop, holding the space, son of Stephen, who played for Samoa and New Zealand, nephew of Graeme Bachop, cousin of Aaron Mauger.
The kids of New Zealand and Samoa are just one big family. But us old blokes, every time cousin Samoa asks us round for dinner, we turn up our nose like there's a bad smell in the room.
Shame on us.
New Zealand Samoa: Christian Cullen, Inga Tuigamala, Frank Bunce, Ma'a Nonu, Julian Savea, Aaron Mauger, Graeme Bachop, Michael Jones, Pat Lam, Josh Kronfeld, Jerome Kaino, Steven Luatua, Olo Brown, Keven Mealamu, Charlie Faumuina.
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