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Wayne Pivac tells a different story of the Pacific islands to the good news one that emanated from Kyoto last week at the World Rugby council meeting.
Raising the bar to five years in 2020 before players are allowed to qualify to play for the resident country was hailed as a blow for smaller nations. But is it really?
Safe guarding the resources of the Pacific islands and protecting the precious natural resource of body shapes perfect for rugby is all well and good. But then it often is from a first world point of view.
While Leinster’s Pro 12 semi-final against Scarlets this week is probably as first world as it can be, the teams will have their share of resident players from other countries, some qualified and others not.
New Zealand have always had a special interest in the islands with players from Tonga and Samoa littering their squads, while Leinster’s Isa Nacewa, not Irish-qualified, is from Fiji.
“The ones that are born in New Zealand, I have no problem with,” says Pivac of the multi-ethnic All Black team.
“Yeah, it’s interesting. You look at Australia, South Africa now, there’s a Fijian playing in just about every international side in the world on the wing.”
A former policeman, the Scarlets coach began his career in New Zealand before he was hired by the Fiji Rugby Union at the beginning of 2004. He coached them to win the Pacific Tri-Nations in his first year and then guided the Fijian Sevens side to win the 2005 Rugby World Cup Sevens.
In all he spent three years living and coaching on the island. It is, he says, far from self interest and greedy ambition that drives island players towards the first world, Tier One nations and the wealthy clubs of Europe.
“When you’ve lived in the islands and you see, outside of the resorts, [it’s] pretty much third world,” he says. “My experience of coaching and living for three years in the islands . . . if you get a young fella who’s got the opportunity to make a living and support his whole family back home on one rugby contract then you’ve got to do it.
“For the Pacific island boys . . . to me it’s a little different to a New Zealander who’s living comfortably in New Zealand and doing very well for himself and coming out to Ireland or Wales.
“I think it’s a little bit different when you go and see the environment they [islanders] have come from and what that change can do for them.”
The rule change from three to five years for residency qualification will probably push the quality players away from home at a younger age, although many already go to New Zealand for their schooling in a rigorous tracking system that has served the All Blacks very well.
While island players can always sign up for overseas club sides, landing a national contract with France, Ireland or England means an inflated profile and greater earning power.
While a larger barrier has been put in place by the new rule, the likelihood is that the motivation to move and earn bigger will not only be undiminished but eagerly pursued.
“Malakai Fekitoa (New Zealand centre), I got him straight out of school,” says Pivac. “He was living in his car at the time, you know, out of his car and he’s now a well, well-paid player. If he came up to the northern hemisphere he’d be on huge money.
“He supports 15 people back on the island, you know, brothers and sisters, it’s a massive family, so that opportunity, I can understand why they would do it.”
Maybe too often moral judgements are made and as Irish fans debate the pros and cons of South African CJ Stander or Kiwi Jared Payne playing with Ireland under the three year rule, other players like Fekitoa, who is considering a move to the Premiership, don’t have the luxury of choice.
Last year, New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew, in what seemed like a self serving comment, accused rogue agents of gathering Pacific island players, especially Fijians to populate the French club system.
Tew’s comments came in response to Olympic gold medal Sevens coach Ben Ryan labelling the Pacific islands the “wild west” of rugby and accusing New Zealand, Australia and France of plundering Fijian stocks that threatens their potential to win Olympic gold medals in the future.
But, says Pivac, the problems are not all caused by Europe and New Zealand, who are single-minded and out to strengthen their own houses, not solve the third world issues that beset the Pacific islands.
“You’ve pretty much got 95 per cent of the money in the [Pacific] islands with five per cent of the population,” explains the Scarlets coach.
“When you see the sort of money that those Test players are on . . . the guys living in Fiji, 50 Fijian dollars (€22) a day to be in camp. It’s a pittance.
“They see a second-hand pair of running shoes lying around, they’re gone. They don’t stay out there for too long, you know. Yet they’re asked to play against Ireland and Wales and these other sides. It’s not a level playing field in terms of the financial side of it, for the players.
“When you get an opportunity to play in the northern hemisphere . . . they’re mad if they don’t.”.
SOURCE: IRISH TIMES/PACNEWS
Pacific Islands News Association
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