Sunday News

Addressing the inequity: Pasifika gets overdue boost

All Blacks legend Sir Bryan Williams tells Marc Hinton that he sees only positive spinoffs for Super Rugby’s new additions.


FOR All Blacks legend Sir Bryan Williams the announceme­nt that Super Rugby was finally opening its doors to the Pacific Islands ended a quarter of a century of frustratio­n, and opened up a whole world of anticipati­on.

Williams, the great All Black wing of the 1970s who became an icon to a generation for his groundbrea­king deeds in the game, has been a key pillar of the Moana Pasifika bid to gain a place at the Super Rugby table, as patron and driving force behind the consortium.

Last Thursday their ambition took a giant stride towards becoming a reality when New Zealand Rugby announced that both the Aotearoa-based Moana Pasifika, who are looking at Eden Park as one of their home venues, and the Fijian Drua had been granted conditiona­l inclusion in the planned new trans-Tasman franchise competitio­n being put together for 2022 and beyond, which may or may not continue to bear the Super Rugby moniker.

There is still some work to be done – notably around meeting key commercial obligation­s, as well as getting Rugby Australia’s final signoff – but there is a confidence that these are minor steps that can be taken in stride for both organisati­ons. The Pacific Islands rugby community finally have a seat at the profession­al rugby table, and the great ‘Beegee’ Williams, for one, could not be happier.

‘‘I am absolutely chuffed,’’ said Williams. ‘‘Twenty-five years ago the Rugby World Cup in South Africa took place . . . and everyone was trying to find their place in profession­al rugby.

Unfortunat­ely the Pacific Islands got left out in the cold. It’s been 25 years of a sense of huge disappoint­ment and grievance about [being] left out of the mainstream profession­al competitio­ns.’’

Williams spoke about Samoa, who he coached in the ‘90s, making the quarterfin­als of the 1991 and ’95 World Cups, and about Fiji getting there in 1987, and the struggles they and Tonga have faced since after being essentiall­y squeezed out of the profession­al game.

Later, in an interview with Sunday News, Williams, born in New Zealand but of Samoan heritage, spoke of the huge implicatio­ns this single decision has for the sport in the Pacific,

and the Pasifika people in general. A generation of young men now have profession­al teams imbued by their culture to aspire to. And multiple generation­s of people have teams they can rally behind.

‘‘I think it has real implicatio­ns for the national teams and national unions, and that has been one of our objectives. I can see a day when we could have a really meaningful internatio­nal competitio­n between Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and perhaps even Japan — our own Six Nations. And it will be very competitiv­e.

‘‘Rugby league has embraced that sort of thing, mainly because they are a smaller sport, and haven’t got so many participat­ing nations. That enthusiasm that Mate Ma’a Tonga engendered [in league] was fantastic, and I can see much the same sort of thing happening here.’’

Asked what was required between now and next year for Moana Pasifika to be a viable ongoing entity, Williams pleaded for patience and perseveran­ce.

‘‘We need to put an infrastruc­ture in place. Money is certainly part of the equation, and coaches and a roster of players who are going to be competitiv­e. Hopefully they’ll give us a little bit of time to put those things in place. Any new franchise coming into any profession­al competitio­n will take a bit of time to get their feet on the ground.

‘‘One thing that gives me a huge amount of confidence . . . I went to a tag tournament in Papakura recently, there were thousands of kids, and the skill level was so high. The great majority of these kids were Pasifika. So the kids are there. They’re just waiting for their opportunit­y.’’

Williams revealed Mount Smart Stadium (the Warriors’ league home venue) and Eden Park were among venues being talked to as potential home grounds, while Pukekohe’s stadium has also been mentioned in despatches. In terms of players, Williams echoed Sir Michael Jones’ belief that these teams could spark a return of experience­d Pasifika players from Europe.

Already the Tonga and Fiji unions have revealed being contacted by players in the north around the prospect of returning to be part of these teams.

‘‘We’ve spoken to a number of players and they’re really starting to embrace this team and what it means,’’ says Williams. ‘‘The team that played New Zealand Maori in December, the players were just over the moon. You could see the guys just celebratin­g their heritage. I don’t see too many difficulti­es in that regard. I’ve heard from different sources in France and the UK that things are getting tougher over there and players are contemplat­ing coming home. The situation with Covid-19 feeds into that as well.’’

The other notable aspect of Moana Pasifika is how it co-exists with the Blues in the Auckland region. The establishe­d franchise has some misgivings about a second team sharing the city limits, but Williams believes there is plenty of room for both.

In terms of whether Moana Pasifika potentiall­y diverts players with Pacific heritage away from All Blacks’ ambitions, Williams isn’t so sure.

‘‘There will still be many of our Pasifika kids who want to be All Blacks. I don’t believe we’re taking that away. The All Blacks still have that mystique and pulling power . . . but this will just be another option.’’

And that, after all, is all the Pacific Islands rugby community have sought for 25 years. They just want to be part of the story. Not excluded from it.

‘The kids are there. They’re just waiting for their opportunit­y. This also has got implicatio­ns for internatio­nal rugby and I think that’s going to be a big plus.’ SIR BRYAN WILLIAMS

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 ?? GETTY IMAGES ?? Moana Pasifika perform their pre-game challenge last year.
GETTY IMAGES Moana Pasifika perform their pre-game challenge last year.

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