International Rugby, Opinions

The sadness of the Pacific Island World Cup challenge

Mark Keohane, writing in Independent Media’s print publication and IOL Sport, bemoans the plight of the Pacific Islands teams at the World Cup in Japan.

Of all the comments from yesterday’s Rugby World Cup, I enjoyed most London Sunday Times’s Stephen Jones’ summary of Uruguay’s famous win against Fiji.

Jones tweeted: ‘Having toured and coached in Uruguay, all hail their magnificent victory over Fiji in an incredible match. RWC needs shocks. But Fiji’s top team on its day could have seismic shocks and this sets back that cause massively. This is such a sweet and bitter result.’

I couldn’t agree more with Jones because each World Cup we get told this is the one in which we see the full force of the Pacific Islands, but it only ends in despair.

We are a week into this World Cup and it is obvious neither Fiji nor Tonga will threaten a quarter-final spot. It is also unlikely Samoa will make it, with matches still to be played against Ireland, Scotland and hosts Japan.

The island teams, for all their individuality and occasional magical cameos, have regressed with each World Cup. Never have all three fired at the same World Cup and the biggest issue is a lack of preparation, the constant club versus country saga, and the unavailability of so many top players.

I am not aiming any criticism at those players with Pacific Island heritage who choose to play for adopted countries or countries they were born in, like England, Australia or New Zealand. They do so by choice.

I feel for those ones who want to play for the Pacific Islands, but sacrifice international rugby because of the commercial gains in European club rugby. The Pacific Island players are given no incentive to want to be part of international rugby because there continues to be such a disregard towards showcasing the best of the Pacific Islands with regular matches against the world’s best.

In 1991 the then Western Samoa made the most emphatic statement in beating Wales and four years later they would again advance to the play-offs of the Rugby World Cup. Since then Samoa, as a collective, have been more sorry than sensational.

Tonga, in 2007, gave a glimpse of what was possible with availability and proper preparation. Ditto Fiji, but it was only Tonga who replicated the potential four years later in New Zealand. Samoa were terrible in 2011 and 2015 and Fiji and Tonga didn’t offer much in 2015.

It has been an uphill battle for the Pacific Island players in between the 2015 and 2019 World Cups, but World Rugby insists it is doing all it can to improve the status of the Island teams. I don’t believe they are because if they were, they’d have realised and actioned a plan in 1991 to ensure that Pacific Island teams become some of the major drawcards at World Cups.

There is so much talent in those countries and rugby can’t call itself a global game when it so often speaks exclusively to an elite minority of teams and dismisses the reality of the regression of the Pacific Islands as Test teams.


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