McKee: Pa­cific X-fac­tor in elec­tri­fy­ing rugby

Fiji Sun - - SPORT - - Sport 24

Rugby aims to open up new fron­tiers this year when Ja­pan host the first Rugby World Cup held in Asia, but the tal­ent-rich Pa­cific is­land nations feel they are still be­ing ne­glected by the game’s power­bro­kers. The is­land nations of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga all boast a rich rugby her­itage and a wealth of play­ing tal­ent, but have bat­tled to over­come fi­nan­cial hard­ships and ge­o­graphic iso­la­tion.

Lobby group Pa­cific Rugby Play­ers Wel­fare es­ti­mates about 20 per­cent of all pro­fes­sional play­ers come from is­lan­der back­grounds, high­light­ing the re­gion’s con­tri­bu­tion to the in­ter­na­tional game.

While the fig­ure is open to in­ter­pre­ta­tion, there is no doubt Pa­cific is­lan­ders have long bol­stered the Test squads of New Zealand and Aus­tralia, and more re­cently Eng­land and France.

X-FAC­TOR

Fiji coach John McKee said there was an “X-fac­tor” about Pa­cific rugby which could elec­trify the game.

“They’re very gifted ath­letes and have that war­rior spirit, which goes back in their his­tory. It’s in their DNA and car­ries on into their rugby,” he said.

But for all their on-field at­tributes, the Pa­cific nations face se­ri­ous off-field is­sues that pre­vent them from con­sis­tently chal­leng­ing the game’s global su­per­pow­ers. Some are be­yond their con­trol, in­clud­ing ge­o­graphic iso­la­tion, lack of fi­nan­cial re­sources and the ac­tions of player agents lur­ing top tal­ent over­seas.

Other prob­lems such as poor gov­er­nance and po­lit­i­cal in­ter­fer­ence in the game can be con­trolled and there are signs things are slowly im­prov­ing.

ALL OVER THE GLOBE

The is­lands, with a col­lec­tive pop­u­la­tion of less than 1.5 mil­lion, lack fi­nan­cial clout and most promis­ing play­ers soon sign for for­eign clubs, mak­ing it hard to forge a co­he­sive na­tional team.

“Our top play­ers are spread all around the world, par­tic­u­larly in Europe,” McKee said.

“So keep­ing an eye on their form, cur­rent fit­ness and in­jury sta­tus is a ma­jor task for us. It puts us at a dis­ad­van­tage against our com­peti­tors, par­tic­u­larly tier one nations, who get a lot more time to­gether.” For years, some un­scrupu­lous player agents ex­ac­er­bated the prob­lem, sign­ing up bud­ding teenage stars to one-sided Euro­pean club con­tracts in a sit­u­a­tion former Fiji sevens coach Ben Ryan likened to “the Wild West”.

McKee said tighter el­i­gi­bil­ity rules in Europe meant the prob­lem had eased but young play­ers still needed sup­port when leav­ing their fam­ily net­works to travel to a for­eign cul­ture where they of­ten did not speak the lo­cal lan­guage. “For some peo­ple, tak­ing them over there was a num­bers game - if they can get 10 play­ers in France and one be­comes a su­per­star that’s great for the agent,” he said. “But who looks af­ter the other nine who don’t get con­tracts? They slip down the lev­els and end up play­ing fed­erale (am­a­teur) rugby. It’s dif­fi­cult to make a liv­ing.”

IM­PROVE­MENT

Fur­ther com­pli­cat­ing mat­ters, the gov­ern­ing rugby unions in Fiji, Tonga and Samoa have all faced ques­tions in re­cent years about how they run the game. Con­cerns have ranged from fi­nan­cial ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties to in­com­pe­tence and po­lit­i­cal in­ter­fer­ence.

“A lot of (prob­lems) have come from home, from the Fi­jian Rugby Union,” said English­man Ryan, who coached Fiji’s sevens team to Olympic gold at the Rio 2016 Games.

“There’s se­ri­ous things they need to get bet­ter at around gov­er­nance and things like that.”

Again, there has been im­prove­ment. Fiji and Samoa were wel­comed onto an ex­panded World Rugby Coun­cil late last year af­ter meet­ing strict gov­er­nance cri­te­ria laid down by the game’s rul­ing body.

Fiji showed their po­ten­tial with a his­toric Test win over France last Novem­ber and McKee was con­fi­dent they could spring more sur­prises in Ja­pan.

NO EASY SOLUTION

But World Rugby’s re­cently dis­carded plan for a cross-hemi­sphere Nations Cham­pi­onship high­lights how the game’s top brass of­ten treat the Pa­cific is­lands as an af­ter­thought.

Ini­tial indication­s were that the is­lands would be ex­cluded from the com­pe­ti­tion’s top di­vi­sion en­tirely, al­though World Rugby said af­ter com­ing un­der in­tense pres­sure that Fiji would have a spot. McKee said even then Fiji would be at a dis­ad­van­tage be­cause its play­ers, mostly Europe-based, would be reg­u­larly pit­ted against the world’s best teams with­out hav­ing enough time to­gether to pre­pare prop­erly.

“What we need is a pro­fes­sional team in a pro­fes­sional com­pe­ti­tion which al­lows us to keep our play­ers,” he said, cit­ing the way the Buenos Aires-based Jaguares Su­per Rugby team had lifted the Ar­gen­tine na­tional side.

A pro­posal for a Pa­cific is­lands Su­per Rugby team was scrapped late last year af­ter or­gan­is­ers de­cided it was not com­mer­cially vi­able. But McKee said if World Rugby was in­tent on global ex­pan­sion and pur­su­ing lu­cra­tive broad­cast rights, then it needed to use some of the money to help the Pa­cific is­lands.

“There’s cer­tainly no easy so­lu­tions but a solution needs to be found,” he said.

Fiji Air­ways Fly­ing Fi­jians coach John McKee.

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