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SYDNEY (Reuters) - Rugby in the South Pacific received a massive boost on Friday when it was announced that a team from Fiji would join Australia's third tier National Rugby Championship from 2017.
The decision to expand the NRC to nine teams next year will provide a pathway for developing players in the island nation, which has long been the subject of 'raids' by wealthier nations.
The costs of the team will be underwritten by World Rugby, whose chairman Bill Beaumont described the move as a "major milestone for the sustainable growth of Fijian rugby".
"The Pacific Islands play a major role in the sport’s heritage and future," the former England captain said in a statement.
"Participation in the NRC will not only provide a superb performance pathway leading in to Rugby World Cup 2019, but it provides locally-based players with a strong alternative to playing club rugby overseas should they wish to remain in the Fijian system."
Fiji won Olympic gold in sevens earlier this year and the fifteen-man side has twice reached the quarter-finals of the Rugby World Cup.
The move echoes the participation of an Argentine Pampas XV in South Africa's Vodacom Cup from 2010, before the Pumas joined the Rugby Championship in 2012.
The team will be made up of players from the national second team, the 'Fiji Warriors', and, unlike the Pampas XV, will play home matches on the islands.
Australian Rugby Union (ARU) chief Bill Pulver also expressed his hope that the team would give talented Fijians the chance to play high quality rugby without having to relocate.
Several Fijian born players, such as Joe Rokocoko and Sitiveni Sivivatu, have played for the world champion All Blacks after emigrating to New Zealand with family as children, or later in life to attend secondary schools on scholarships.
Current All Blacks winger Waisake Naholo came to New Zealand as a teenager.
Australia has also selected Fijian-born players with centres Tevita Kuridrani and Samu Kerevi as well as winger Henry Speight in Michael Cheika's current squad.
Northern hemisphere pundits have criticised New Zealand and Australia for 'poaching' Pasifika players, although more are appearing in European national teams as professional rugby enters its second generation.
Ben Ryan, who coached the gold-medal winning Olympic side, said player agents were now scouring the south Pacific on behalf of wealthy European clubs to lure away the next generation of talent.
Under World Rugby eligibility rules, players who spend three years in another country can establish residency and turn out for their new country if they have not already appeared for their home nation.
Fellow Pasifika nations Samoa and Tonga have also faced similar issues.
Reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by Nick Mulvenney