The hidden cost to the Wallabies of Pacific Island inclusion in Super Rugby

The inclusion of a Pacific Islander team in Super Rugby is arguably long overdue, but it has potentially serious ramifications for the game in Australia. New Zealand has granted Moana Pasifika and Fiji Drua conditional licences to take part in an expanded Super Rugby competition. Given the Pacific Islands’ enormous contribution to world rugby over the years, their participation would certainly be well-deserved.

The current five-team competitions in Australia and New Zealand are not regarded as economically viable in the long-term and there is a view that Super Rugby needs to re-grow to a 12 to 14 team competition to become financially sound. The addition of two Pacific Island teams would potentially add vibrancy to any future Super Rugby venture, but it would also pose a threat to Australia’s playing resources, which are already stretched to the limit.

Rugby Australia must ascertain how the two Pacific Island teams would be populated before supporting their inclusion. Unless Moana Pasifika and Fiji Drua can bring back their best players from Europe and Japan, they will probably need to poach Pacific Islander players from Australian and New Zealand Super Rugby teams. Otherwise, they will be glorified NRC outfits which will add little value to the competition.

Even with financial support from World Rugby, it would be difficult for either team to recruit all of their world class players from rich overseas clubs, which means they would have to look for players in Australia and New Zealand if they were to be competitive. Moana Pasifika general manager Kevin Senio revealed 80% of players must declare for Tonga and Samoa, but that would still leave plenty of room for the Islanders to cherry-pick players from their bigger Pacific neighbours.

A Fijian rugby official has already stated he is looking forward to the day when the likes of Wallabies winger Marika Koroibete is playing for Fiji. That comment should set off alarm bells in Australia. If Australia wants to maintain a competitive Wallabies side and support five Super Rugby teams, it cannot afford yet another off-shore competitor for talent.

The Pacific Island teams are entitled to access their own players and should be fully supported to do so. Many Pacific Islander players in Australia are the sons of migrants and are as Australian as anyone else but playing for their ancestral homes may be a strong drawcard, particularly at the back end of careers.

Since the arrival of Willie Ofahengaue in the late 1980s, more and more Pacific Islanders have populated the Wallabies and Australian provincial teams. Several years ago Rugby Australia introduced foreign player regulations for the Super Rugby teams and each team was allowed two foreign players – one marquee Test player and a development player – who could become eligible for the Wallabies. This rule clearly targeted Pacific Islanders.

The influence of Pacific Islanders on Australian rugby has now become almost as profound as that of African Americans on NBA basketball in the US. More than half of the Wallabies’ 40-man training squad was made up of players with Pacific Islander heritage – Allan Alaalatoa, Filipo Daugunu, Pone Fa’amausili, Trevor Hosea, Len Ikitau, Feleti Kaitu’u, Koroibete, Noah Lolesio, Alex Mafi, Isi Naisarani, Hunter Paisami, Jordan Petaia, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Pete Samu, Irae Simone, Darcy Swain, Sitaleki Timani, Matt To’omua, Taniela Tupou, Seru Uru, Rob Valetini and Suilasi Vunivalu.

Another four Pacific Islander players – Folau Fainga’a, Jordan Uelese, Brandon Paenga-Amosa and Scott Sio – were notable omissions, while overseas-based Wallabies Samu Kerevi, Adam Coleman and Will Skelton were not considered. Significantly, Alaalatoa, Koroibete, Lolesio, Mafi, Naisarani, Paisami, Petaia, Salakaia-Loto, Samu, To’omua, Tupou, Valetini and Vunivalu are strong contenders for the Wallabies’ 23-man Test squad, while Kerevi, Coleman and Skelton could potentially be recalled.

If a Pacific Islander team had participated in Super Rugby since the competition’s inception in 1996, would there be as many players of Island heritage in Australian rugby today? It is hardly a coincidence that the Australian team with the most Pacific Islander representation – Queensland Reds – is on top of the Super Rugby AU table, while the team with the least Islander representation in their run on side – NSW Waratahs – is on the bottom.

The Reds, who play the Western Force in Perth on Friday night in the final round, have already guaranteed a home final, but where would they be without Mafi, Paenga-Amosa, Paisami, Petaia Salakaia-Loto, Tupou, Uru and Vunivalu? The Reds, Brumbies and Rebels are the likely Super Rugby AU finalists and there are strong Pacific Islander connections running through all three of those teams.

The Pacific Islands have a strong case for inclusion in Super Rugby, but Australia must be alive to the fact that for all the potential benefits they may bring, there could also be a cost, which Australia may not be able to afford.