WELLINGTON (Reuters) - While the influence of the Pacific islands on global rugby is undeniable with as many as one in five professionals having Pasifika heritage, Tonga, Fiji and Samoa look set for another disappointing World Cup as perennial problems endure.
Coveted for their combination of power and pace, Pasifika players have been thrilling rugby fans for decades now and it is a rare tier one squad that will now not feature a player with his roots in the islands northeast of Australasia.
Despite that, the Pacific island nations have perhaps less chance of getting out of their World Cup pools this year than they had in the days before the game embraced professionalism.
The problems of funding, domestic pathways, player release and inequity of resources continue to impact islander rugby and there is a growing frustration that the situation is, if anything, getting worse.
Aayden Clarke, who runs the Pacific Rugby Players (PRP) union, said while governing body World Rugby does a lot of good work, it needs to do more.
“The big opportunity for change does sit with World Rugby,” he told Reuters.
“This is why we are standing up in meetings with World Rugby and saying that if you’re not worried about us, and initiatives to support us, then you’re not looking after the global game.
“If that happens there is genuine opportunity for change in how things have been going in the last 20 years.”
World Rugby have pumped about $24 million into the Pacific over the last four years, principally for development programmes or training camps and believe that will pay dividends in Japan.
“We are confident that the Pacific Islands are in a great place heading into Japan 2019,” World Rugby’s High Performance manager Peter Hore said last month.
The fact, though, is that while the Pacific islands were represented in the quarter-finals of the World Cup three times before rugby went professional in 1995, only Fiji in 2007 have reached the knockout stages since.
One of the major reasons why the Pacific teams have struggled at World Cups is because their players are scattered across the world as they seek to provide a better life for their families.
The most talented get poached by richer unions after fulfilling residency requirements, while the cash-strapped Pacific unions struggle to get their players together with any frequency even when they can get the clubs to release them.
Clarke says their data shows about 18 percent of rugby professionals are Islanders, many at wealthy clubs in England, France and Japan, where, according to Esportif International, they earn on average more than $200,000 a year.
Others, however, barely scrape by in the lower reaches of European leagues but even there they will be earning more than they could at home, where national average annual incomes range from $4,000 to $5,000.
“To put it simply, people in the Pacific are poor,” Rochelle Stewart-Withers, a Senior Lecturer in Development Studies at New Zealand’s Massey University, told Reuters.
“There are development indicators there that are worse than sub-Saharan Africa. And sport might be your only opportunity to change the way things are occurring.”
Enabling talented youngsters to make a decent living from rugby without leaving the islands would undoubtedly be the best long-term outcome for the national teams.
One possible solution often suggested is to introduce a combined Pasifika team into the southern hemisphere’s Super Rugby provincial competition or expand the Rugby Championship that involves the national sides of New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina.
While the islands abound with rugby talent, though, they have small populations and none offer the sort of economic base required to drive revenue and pay wages.
“The realities of having a professional competition in the Pacific in the current economic environment are that it’s just not going to happen,” Clarke said.
Clarke says that what might work is the inclusion of teams in competitions of more developed rugby nations, in the same vein as Fiji Drua joining Australia’s third-tier National Rugby Championship.
Introducing second-tier Super Rugby and Rugby Championship competitions that would include the three Pacific nations and Japan might also offer a pathway.
Any solutions will come far too late for this year’s World Cup in Japan, of course, but Clarke believes World Rugby must look again at the issue to prevent a further decline for 2023.
“We have to ask what is the best model? Is the current one actually stifling or growing the game?” he said.
“We may end up back at the same point but we need to start exploring some alternatives.”
Reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by Nick Mulvenney