Opinion By Jim Kayes
Another year of ignoring Pacific Island rugby draws to a close over the next five weeks.
On Thursday, the All Blacks head north to play warm up games against Scotland and Italy before the tests against Wales and England. It’s a tour that screams for mid-week games as loudly as the fans in Apia, Suva and Nu’ukualofa would support a visit by the All Blacks to their shores.
New Zealand and the three Pacific Island countries have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship in player development with the All Blacks, harvesting the fruit of Polynesian immigration to New Zealand; while the Island teams have been able to field players schooled and coached in the game in New Zealand. The latter has helped Tonga, Samoa and Fiji shine at various World Cups but it seems the bigger countries are happy for that to be their lot.
It’s almost as if the trio of proud countries are trotted out like a circus act to perform for the World Cup crowds then ushered back into the closet to let the big boys strut their money-making stuff in between the tournaments. It’s got to end.
For too long the International Rugby Board has paid little more than lip service to the Island nations. Sure they dip into their vast, World Cup-filled coffers to dish out a bit of money here and there. And yes, the likes of the New Zealand Rugby Union host games against the Islands nations that see the profits returned to Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.
But why is it that the IRB hasn’t scheduled tier one games in the Islands into their test calendar? Why is it that the All Blacks, along with South Africa, Australia and every tier one nation don’t play in the Islands? Yes, the schedule if full, but if it’s okay for the All Blacks to play “tests” against Scotland and Italy, surely they can stump up on the doorsteps of Samoa, Tonga and Fiji.
And while the IRB’s at it, let’s see the so called ‘Home Unions’ summon up the courage to re-address the all-important issue of eligibility and let tier two countries field former tier one players who are eligible to play for them.
International rugby needs more competitive teams. It needs the top four or five to be challenged – even beaten – by a wider range of teams. Allowing players to step down a tier, after a suitable stand down period, would help lift the standard of the international game. You can’t help but wonder if it is fear of losing that stops the likes of Scotland and Ireland, in particular, from supporting such a change.
As for the All Blacks squad that will head north, expect no surprises. Dane Coles will be the third hooker and Tawera Kerr Barlow the third halfback and both are likely to feature in the playing 22 for all four tests. Ali Williams will heave his creaking frame into the business class seat today even if he may not deserve too. Williams has experience on his side while coach Steve Hansen feels he has blooded enough players this year and unearthed two gems in Luke Romano and Brodie Retallick in the process.
Loose forward Adam Thomson is also expected to make the squad even though he is almost certainly going to be playing off shore next year. Thomson covers all three loose positions and with Brad Shields injured, the selectors see no other player worth taking a punt on.