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When England’s attack coach, Scott Wisemantel, discusses the state of Pacific Island rugby it pays to listen. When he urges the Rugby Football Union to arrange tours to Tonga, Samoa and Fiji – “I don’t think that just because it’s England you can think you’re above everyone else” – and to share with them their autumn gate receipts it is worth listening to.
For Wisemantel has first-hand experience of working in the South Seas, for the past two years coaching at the Pacific Islands combine – an initiative to develop young players from the three countries, placing them with professional clubs abroad but crucially ensuring they are not poached by tier-one nations.
The scheme is part of World Rugby’s £20m (US$25 million) investment in Pacific rugby over the last four years but it is open to question whether that is enough.
How can it be when more than a fifth of all professional players, and an estimated 15% of those taking part at the World Cup, can claim Pacific Island heritage that it would be a considerable shock if Fiji, Samoa or Tonga reached the quarter-finals? Tonga, England’s opening World Cup opponents on Sunday, were recently beaten 92-7 by New Zealand and there is growing concern that Pacific Island players are being put under increased pressure by their professional clubs to make themselves unavailable for Test rugby.
The combine initiative at least attempts to address that by ensuring players are “captured” by their countries before moving abroad but progress is slow. Should we really be surprised when the Pacific Islands threaten to boycott the World Cup amid suggestions of a proposal to shut them out of World Rugby’s Nations Championship plans?
There is still no Super Rugby franchise based in Fiji, though Wisemantel questions the wisdom of that proposal, while Samoa’s Test against England in 2017 laid bare the financial inequality.
Samoa earned around £650 (US$812) per player, England £22,000(US$27,000), and while the RFU made a goodwill donation of £75,000(US$93,000), a percentage of the millions recouped from Twickenham would have made more of a difference.
New Zealand played their first Test in Samoa in the buildup to the 2015 World Cup while Tonga have hosted Ireland in 2003 and Wales were due to visit two years ago, only for stadium concerns to force a move to Auckland. England however, have not been to the Pacific Islands since the dawn of professionalism.
“They do need that competition,” said Wisemantel. “They need to play consistently against the best. The problem is the revenue, whether financially it can be done, that’s the biggest issue. Potentially a solution is that in the November window, the Pacific nations get to play one of the big dogs at one of the big stadiums and they get a piece of the pie.
“There’s no reason you couldn’t go there. Other teams have been there. I don’t think that just because it’s England you can think you’re above everyone else. There’s no reason you can’t go there, if you tack on a game against Australia or New Zealand, then you make it viable as a tour. But it’s a long way to go.”
Wisemantel is not holding his breath, however. “I’d like to see it happen but will it happen? I don’t think so. It’s important to keep building the base for them. Yes, I want to win [on Sunday] and we’d like to win well, but at the same time, I want it to be a contest. Eddie has given a really good overview of the motivations of the Island teams, which is the pride of a small nation doing well. And the second one is the ability to get a contract. He has also spoken about the importance of family, extended family in the village.”
On Sunday Wisemantel fully expects James Faiva, a fly-half who was part of this year’s combine and subsequently earned a move to Europe, to be part of Tonga’s squad.
Wisemantel’s role is to spend a week overseeing what is in effect a trial for players who have been purposely “captured” by either Samoa, Fiji or Tonga, then set about finding them clubs in nations such as New Zealand, Australia, the USA and Japan, or even France and Spain.
“It gives you an appreciation of why they play and what they play for,” added Wisemantel. “You’ve got hit shells, balls, cones, all the testing equipment to do their strength and conditioning testing, but outside that it’s bibs, maybe a few agility poles. That’s it, it’s very raw but from a personal point of view it’s deeply rewarding. You see a guy come in at the start of the week from a village and then at the end of the week he’s off to play professional rugby to get paid. It’s brilliant.”.
SOURCE: THE GUARDIAN/PACNEWS
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